December 2005.



Carol-Ann Braun

Multimedia Artist

Paris, France.

Tel : 01 53 60 06 06





This paper will consider esthetic issues raised by generative art installations at the Festival Premier Contact, organized in April 2005 by Le CUBE/Art3000 on the outskirts of Paris, France. At a time when coded interfaces have re-structured the relation between author, artwork, spectator and everyday life, we would like to analyze two installations in particular : one using photographic elements (Damaris Risch’s « At A Distance ») and another relying on augmented video technology (Vincent Levy’s « Ghosts »).  Our focus shall be on the emerging role of interactive, generative art –signage in an urban environment.

We shall contrast elements of continuity and discontinuity between  20th century   « photographic esthetics » (our term) and coded, “augmented”, forms of representation.  The status of image is at the center of our analysis, as well as role of the  devices used to create both open and autonomous forms of representation.  We shall focus on temporality as it relates to scale: programmed behavior in the context of pedestrian flows; opacity and slowness as a form of media identity; and the limits of generativity in a dialogic situation. 


Conversations with a billboard


Outstanding examples of generative art work were featured in the « First Contact Festival » (, set up this spring in the streets of the city of Issy-les Moulineaux, a hi-tech suburb of Paris. Organized by LeCUBE/ART3000 (France’s largest multimedia art center) the Festival was curated by Florent Aziosmanoff, LeCUBE’s Art Director.  He selected a dozen artists whose work was framed in outdoor displays placed at strategic intersections of the city.


Each outdoor display contained a hard-drive, laser beams, discreet cameras, hiding the artifice enabling them to respond to a passerby’s presence. The interactivity proposed was not of the simple stimulus-response kind. LeCube specializes in what is called, in French, « l’art comportemental, » or “behavioural art”, self-generating work programmed to take into consideration a variety of external factors. It doesn’t « wait » to be activated ; nor does it simply generate images without taking into consideration input from without.  The work selected had both a degree of autonomy in relation to its environment and a capacity to respond to external stimuli, creating renderings in « real time » all while existing in reciprocity with its surroundings.


Within these parameters, the works were quite varied. Only three examples will be analyzed here, chosen for the different ways in which they illustrate the potential of these new art forms placed in an urban setting.  The works raise difficult questions.  These are more than experiments situated in a lab or gallery setting. Indeed, the curatorial intent behind the “First Contact Festival” is quite ambitious.  It assumes that the general public is ready to include interactive art among its daily activities.  It also questions the scope of imagery in an urban environment, challenging not only the use of images, but also the relation expected between images and their viewers.


Artist Damaris Risch‘s « A Distance », for example, consisted of a life-size self-portrait encased in an upright plexiglass display. Risch’s piece was structured around a semantic map, which organized more than 100 still photographs into related sequences.  The piece was programmed with Virtools (used for creating interactive games) coupled with a neural network. The sequence of portraits displayed depended on ambient noise levels, the time of day, the « mood » of the work itself and the movements of the passerby.  All these factors contributed the expression of the self-portrait, at times innocent, duplicitous, kind, or spiteful.  The display promoted nothing. It was not a medium for selling a product, but a work which stood for itself, as a means of engaging the passerby in a silent conversation.   



Ill. 1.  Damaris Risch, “A Distance”, produced by the Atelier/LeCUBE (programming with Virtools by Didier Bouchon.) Photo @ Romain Osi, 2005.



A new form of « sign language »...for a new kind of sign?


One could argue that, yes, such interactive electronic signs are unprecedented in the history of art, and in the history of the commercial billboard. Since when has it been so easy to stop on a street corner and link up with an artificially intelligent portrait of a young woman?


then again, , Risch’s outdoor self-portrait, however seemingly responsive, is a manipulative device that provokes us into baring part of our own personality to...ourselves, at a moment when we are surrounded by busy strangers. 


Life media vs art media


Is generative and interactive art in the streets that extraordinary a change in our urban landscape ?


Pushing art out of the studio and into the street is not new. Nor is transgressing the thin line between « life media and art media .»[1] Incorporating the « banal » in art has become standard procedure in the effort to renew academic art forms. A subway ticket in a painting,[2] LED panels fixed to the walls of a museum[3], or the sounds of traffic in a piece of music,[4] are all familiar ways of exploring the limits between the everyday and esthetics.


The city has had a constant role to play in this process. Electrical signage, the increasing presence of printed, multicolored posters in the streets, the glass displays of large department stores, all led to the emergence of  what Gustave Kahn called, in 1901, “The Esthetics of Street Life.”[5] Several years later, Marinetti, founder of the Italian Futurist movement, would claim that the city was in and of itself a « moving, ephemeral work of art. »[6]


It is important to note in passing that Marinetti was fascinated by the prosthetic nature of technology. In an essay entitled “Man Multiplied and the Reign of the Machine”, he described, in visionary terms, the identification of man with machine, and machine with man. “Wings lie dormant in man’s flesh.” [7]  He wrote of man’s “powerful physiological electricity,” [8] of a future when man could both externalize his dreams and find, in machines, a sensitive and intelligent counterpart. Augmented man and augmented machines were also part of the Futurist’s “cityscape”— stage for liberated individuals to assert their autonomy and power in the face of the establishment.


The technology of representation itself has also been a factor in the opening up of traditional art forms to the outside world. The camera, a “picture machine,” is at the root of Futurist esthetics and the Futurist’s ambition to free the artist from institutional constraints. Poised half-way between the outside world and the roaming eye of the flaneur-become-picture-taker, cameras freed image-making from academies. One man, one picture-making device…and the world. 


Today, cities today are jam-packed with an extraordinary number and variety of representations of men, women, children, cars, toys, clothes, perfumes, landscapes, often reproduced on a very large scale. The large images that surrounded us reinforce the “moving and ephemeral entity” that we call the city.  They provide an imaginary stepping stone to a larger “body politic”. 


They also contribute to what Guy Debord, the founder of the Situationist International (late 1950s) has called « the society of the spectacle. »  By ‘spectacle’ Debord was not referring to images as decorative elements, but as mediating forces, determining social interactions and our view of reality:


  In all of its particular manifestations — news, propaganda, advertising, entertainment — the spectacle represents the dominant model of life. It is the omnipresent affirmation of the choices that have already been made in the sphere of production and in the consumption implied by that production. In both form and content the spectacle serves as a total justification of the conditions and goals of the existing system. The spectacle also represents the constant presence of this justification since it monopolizes the majority of the time spent outside the production process. » [9]


Signs, the content they vehicle and their urban context are all elements of a common ideological framework.


The question then is to what extent does interactive, generative art in the streets of the city reinforce “the society of the spectacle”, or, on the contrary, help change our relation to the representations which surround us?


Private/public spaces


At the heart of such questions are issues of scale and the relation of private and public spaces.


Mediated extension of human presence in the city exists when we talk on a cell phone in public. Talking into a hand-held instrument, however, entails erecting invisible barriers around our public presence.  It is as if we were talking out loud to ourselves.  In such an instance, technology reinforces social exchange on a one to one basis, in a process quite independent of the esthetic issues raised by the scale of public signage. “Outdoor art”, by definition, transcends the private sphere, at least in part.




Jean-Pierre Balpe. “Fiction d’Issy”, Photo @ Romain Osi, 2005.



Of works shown at the “First Contact Festival”, one in particular straddled both ends of this public/private dynamic.  “Fiction d’Issy,” a love story/installation by Jean-Pierre Balpe (professor at l’Université de Vincennes, Paris VIII) linked portable phones and networked, public signs. Passerby dialed up a special number; they then hit any key between 0 and 9 to read different sentences automatically generated by a program; they validated an option (or not) and then sent it off to the large yellow and black municipal bulletin boards. « Fiction d’Issy » had everyone wondering who wrote what over several square kilometers. (The entire ongoing novel is available at ).


In this instance, without a doubt, interactive and generative art creates a new balance of intentions, gestures and voices in a public space.  The hybridization of scale and dialogue in this kind of “spectacle” is quite new. Generated content, created algorithmically — and so, in a sense, without human intervention, — is re-cast by an individuals’ desire to see a story move in one direction rather than another.  A hand-held and private technology broadcasts this choice city-wide.  “Participation” here is indeed enabled by technological means.  It enhances man’s ability to affect his visual environment.


Augmetned images


There is a more subtle aspect to the hybridization of the productive processes characteristic of generative art-signage. It has to do with kinds of « image/signs » within each electronic billboard, mixing reality and « real-time » renderings. 


The best example of this at the « First Contact Festival » was Vincent Levy’s « Fantômes » (which means ‘ghosts’ in French).  His electronic billboard was, in effect, a « video-sign » and, like many video installations, it worked like a mirror, incorporating the spectator as an element of the sign itself. If a viewer lingered in front of the sign, his image, at first ghost-like, gradually became more precise; with time, the program would « hold on to it », and store it in memory. At different points in time, the program brought up images of previous viewers it had decided to « remember » and « represent » in turn. It also displayed images of fictional, pre-recorded characters, like a child dressed up as a clown.





Vincent Lévy, “Fantômes”, co-produced with LeCUBE/ART3000, programming Didier Bouchon with Virtools, Photo @ Romain Osi, 2005.


“Augmented video” of this kind isn’t just another « medium » but a mediator in a narcissistic game of representations. It isn’t a reflective mechanism, but a thinking one, making it impossible to ignore the fundamental shift that separates this “art in life” from 20th-century counterparts.  The interactivity here is between spectators and signs endowed with an artificial intelligence that understands them. The work interprets their real presence as a kind of “sign.” It digitizes them into its own world, and asserts a presence of its own. Just as the spectator interprets the symbolic language of an artwork, here the artwork interprets the spectator’s world as a set of symbols. Part of our world—part of our body language or spoken language—has been digitized and has become food for thought for a sign-become-author-and-viewer both. In a sense, this new technology has allowed for us to participate in images and for images to participate in our lives, differently. One can’t help but recall Marinetti’s vision of man’s symbiosis with machines.  This time, however, it is not man who is augmented by technology, but the image itself.


Dialogic form


The French new media theorist, Philippe Dubois, insists that new media are simply new tools for old themes. “La nouveauté éventuelle de celles-ci n’engage en rien leurs fins, donc leurs effets de representation…. Elle agit comme leurre, elle aveugle, elle détourne, en s’exhibant à elle-même comme sa propre finalité…Les dites “dernieres technologies” ne font en fait jamais rien d’autre que réactiver de très anciennes questions de representation….”[10]  For Dubois, esthetic innovations are independent of the tools used. 


Of course, when seen in absolute terms, a screen can be used for any purpose, including the most retrograde.   And the “imaginary world” which we project upon the most rudimentary forms does indeed reveal how much meaning is in the eye of the beholder. The French media theorist Francois Jost insists that “la signification aussi bien que la valeur esthétique dépend de l’attribution d’une intentionalité. »[11]  The understanding of intent lies in the mind’s eye: only the spectator can attribute « intention », be it artistic or not.


I would like to argue here that the transparency attributed to media by these two theorists is symptomatic of their overriding preoccupation with cinema and photography.  The indexical nature of these media contribute to the way images in general have been understood.  Philippe Dubois writes, « …les machines, en tant qu’outils sont des intermédiaires qui viennent s’insérer entre l’homme et le monde dans le système de construction symbolique qu’est le principe meme de représentations. »  Hard to disagree there, but it’s the next step in his argument that  reveals the influence of what are now « old media » on his thinking.  He goes on to define an image as a relation between a subject and reality.[12] The word here that is most problematic is “subject”.  Is the subject the artist or the viewer?  The fact that one (the viewer)  can so easily be substituted for the other (the author) reveals Dubois’ bias, and the influence of the photographic esthetic on his understanding of representation.  Here, an image is a reflection of reality through the eyes of a beholder…who is holding a camera, and with whom the spectator identifies, quasi-seamlessly.


But what of the “behaviouristic” image, augmented by programming? What of the code behind the generated forms on the screen? What of the imaginary realm, - quite independent of any representation of the outside world, - created by a medium that resists and responds to the viewer, physically?


If one suspends disbelief for a split second, the image displayed in a piece such as “A distance” or “Fantomes” is more than a representation. It has a theatrical presence which changes its status of an “image” into that of an “imaginary character” that responds to us in a dialogic manner. The image displayed is only a facet of a hidden program, a coded set of intentions:  the intention of an author-programmer, and that of an autonomous program capable of inventing variations within a given framework.


In a more formal sense, the sign also represents itself.  It has both a material and psychic opacity which are part and parcel of the imaginary identity of the represented interlocutor.  Levy’s augmented video piece illustrates this quite well:  the piece selects what it wants to see, what it wants to record and what it wants to project.  Part of its intelligence resides in its capacity to resist transparency, so to speak.


Jean-Louis Weissberg has repeatedly pointed out the new role of the spectator in digital interactive media, coining the French phrase “spect-acteur.”[13]  Thanks to code, the  “reader” of interactive media determines the work’s final shape. In the process, the “reader” becomes a “writer” of sorts, and co-author of the work.  This added layer of intentionality changes the status of the image, no longer an interface between an extant world, a medium and an eye.  It loses its indexical relation to the outside world. Authorship is shared with the medium itself, via code and the underlying ideas which determine the eventual shape of the representation on the screen. 


With generative art, this imaginary “structure” determines a new type of dialogical form,  with evident links to theater.  (It is tempting to rename the Futurist’s “electrical theater” and call it “electronic theater”.) What is new here, however, is the transformation of actors into “agents”, and the transformation of the stage into a sign, become dialogic medium in and of itself.  Generative art augments the “image” to such an extent that ti can no longer be considered interface.  It is a dialogic partner in an evolving and open “representation”.


As for us, the passer-by, our role has changed as well.  Of course, as “spect-actors” we retain part of our now familiar status when confronted with electronic art.  However, we are no longer confined to a mouse-screen interface and the sanctuary of laboratories, desk-top or closed gallery spaces.  By placing generative art at street intersections, the “First Contact Festival” has engaged art in an open, social process.


This raises many interesting new questions, in part evoked by authors such as Craig Saper[14] when discussing “socio-poetic” networked art’s link to precedents such as Fluxus.  However, the weight behavioral art as a medium in and of itself,—  the weight of its interactive and generated code,— implies an entirely new esthetic field, far from the indexical realm of twentieth century technologies.  Form, here, is not “open” in the modern sense of the word.  On the contrary, it is thickly embedded in a form of technology which has given the “sign” a prosthetically enhanced presence.  The outside world is a small element in a new set of mental and physical structures, attuned to a new, dialogically structured representation, with new rhetorical horizons.






Carol-Ann Braun



[1] Dick Higgins, one of the founding members of Fluxus, used these words to define the term “intermedia”, which combines aspects of different artistic disciplines and media to create new forms, beyond established artistic conventions, quoted from the« Preface » , Postface, (New York : Something Else Press, 1964).

[2] An early example can be found in the painting-collage entitled « Still Life with Bottle and glass », b ythe Russian cubo-futurist painter Alexandra Ekster.

[3] See Jenny Holzer’s Extended helical tricolor L.E.D. electronic-display signboard in two sections, site-specific dimension, shown at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, (Selections from Truisms, Inflammatory Essays, The Living Series, The Survival Series, Under a Rock, Laments, and Child Text), 1989.

[4]The Italian Futurist composer and musician Luigi Russolo, wrote : "we must break out of this narrow circle of pure musical sounds, and conquer the infinite variety of noise sounds...Let us wander through a great modern city with our ears more alert than our eyes, and enjoy distinguishing between the sounds of water, air, or gas in metal pipes, the purring of motors ) which breathe and pulsate with indisputable animalism), the throbbing of valves, the pounding of pistons, the screeching of gears, the clatter of streetcars on their rails, the cracking of whips, the flapping of awnings and flags. We shall enjoy fabricating the mental orchestrations of the banging of store shutters, the slamming of doors, the hustle and bustle of crowds, the din of railroad stations, foundries, spinning mills, printing presses, electric power stations, and underground railways."  Quoted in Watkins, Glenn, Soundings- Music in the Twentieth Century, NY, Schirmer Books, 1988, p.236

[5]Gustave Kahn, L’Esthétique de la Rue, published by Fasquelle en 1901, quoted by Giovanni Lista in his Preface to Le Futurisme, (Milano: Arnoldo Mondadori Editore, 1980) p 19.

[6] Filippo Tommaso Marinetti, quoted by Giovanni Lista, ibid, p 19. 

[7] Marinetti, in an article entitled « Man Multiplied and the Reign of the Machine », Ibid, p 112.

[8] Ibid, p 113.

[9] « The Society of the Spectacle », by Guy Debord,  translated by Ken Knabb and available on « The Bureau of Public Secrets » web-site,, chapter 1, paragraph 6.

[10] Dubois, Philippe, Cinéma et Dernieres Technolgoies, Arts Cinéma, De Boeck Unviersité, INA 1998.

[11] Jost,Francois. Le temps du Regard, du Spectateur aux Images, Méridiens Klincsieck, Paris, 1998, p 115.

[12] Philippe Dubois, op.cit, p 23 « Si l’image est un rapport entre le sujet et le réel, le jeu des machines figuratives, et surtout leur accroissement progressif, viendra de plus en plus distendre, écarter, séparer les deux poles. »

[13] Weissberg, Jean-Louis. “L’Auteur en Collectif, Entre l’Individu et l’Indivis,” Les Cahiers du Numérique, Hermès, Vol 1. No 9, Paris, 2002.

[14] Saper, Craig. Networked Art. University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis., 2001.