By Joe Ferguson
Almost 50 years ago, Billy Klüver and Robert Rauschenberg published the aims of Experiments in Art and Technology. They wrote that their collaboration of artists and technologists was to “…Eliminate the separation of the individual from technological change and expand and enrich technology to give the individual variety, pleasure, and avenues for exploration and involvement in contemporary life…”
In 1967, those words expressed concern about the unchecked march of technological progress by the government and industrial giants. Since that time, our lives have been invaded by technology of a more personal nature. It started, arguably, with the arrival of the first home computers. One of the most influential was the Macintosh which arrived in 1984. An ad for the first model urged, "try the computer you already know how to use”—the promise was an intuitive, human interface with digital technology. The promise failed because it was based on an ideology with more epistemological than empirical support.
The conundrum has been explored by robotics researchers like Hans Moravec, philosophers like Andy Clark, visual artists like Camille Utterback, and recently by dancer and choreographer Katharine Hawthorne. Mainframe is Hawthorne’s newest work—it premiered December 3-5 at San Francisco’s ODC Theater—and it sought to ask “how computers have changed the way we see our bodies—five dancers meet five old Macintosh monitors for a literal translation of human computer interaction.”
Plato may have asserted that vision was the “most noble” of senses, but the truth is that we understand our world through the entirety of our perceptual stimuli. Tactile and proprioceptive information is processed intellectually through metaphorical references—we reach an understanding by digging deeper into the facts. The visual interface of a computer screen provides a great deal of visual input, but the minuscule physical requirements of engagement are at odds with our inherent physical faculties of exploring our environment.
Mainframe began with a lone dancer attempting to interact with the minimal, rectangular box of an early Macintosh—he moved around it, over it, touched it. Other dancers eventually joined him, each carrying an apparently over-heavy Macintosh monitor, each attempting to interact with the devices.
The well-structured performance continued similarly with dancers spinning, rolling on the floor, dropping to their knees, all while interacting or navigating Macintosh monitors.
Eventually we heard the voice of Siri. The first time Siri gave the dancers commands--go back, move to the left, etc. In a later movement, the dancers asked questions of Siri, and Siri attempted to answer.
Near the end, a dancer disemboweled a Macintosh while another dancer watched with looks of intermittent shock and dismay. She pulled out and disentangled cables and wires. In the end, she removed a cloth heart from the mainframe.
The impressive musical score was largely provided by Matt Parker’s The Imitation Archive. Parker spent two months cataloging sound from the National Museum of Computing at Bletchley Park, UK. He then composed ten musical pieces that reflect on and integrate the sounds of 70 years of computing history.
In Mainframe, Hawthorne provoked the notion that, despite Klüver’s and Rauschenberg’s challenge, we have not eliminated “the separation of the individual from technological change.” Instead we have reinforced duality through technological design. Her dancers navigated the Macintosh mainframes, touched them, sat on them, and used them as props. The heart removed near the end of the performance revealed perhaps a human intention to the computer, but it was not evident from outside the device.
Since the launch of the Macintosh 30 years ago, our screens have gotten wider and have more color and better definition, but the hardware interface is no more humane. It’s not that computers have changed the way we see our bodies, it’s that the design of technology reinforces the idea that our bodies are separate from our consciousness and thus do not need to be engaged in the process of acquiring knowledge.
It is poignant that we have arrived at a time when the Macintosh has a historical aspect. Hawthorne’s Mainframe asks us to reconsider our lasting relationship with technology by disrupting the idea that personal computers are intuitive. The separation of the individual from technology will remain as long as those who make the devices refuse to design them in a way that engages all of our investigative faculties.