Eyewriter: Narrative and Utility

'Contemporary appeals to the aesthetic of experience, then, always need to be leveraged by own demands to experiment. We are responsible for our own performativity and for the politics we make of “emancipated” experience. Best to enter these ludic contracts as both knowers and dupes - only then we might really manage to do things with art' - Caroline Jones

The quote above comes from a brilliant article on, among other things, performativity in the work of Maria Abramovic, Tino Seghal, and Vito Acconci and I’m particularly curious about the possible meanings of the last line in that article. What could it mean to “do things with art”? The critical contemplation of art would become an activity of art, a utility even, and the aesthetics of that utility would become the communicative medium of the work, the “reading” would be “using”, the artwork in and of itself would be the action it engenders. It’s a curious development and if the art world at-large, whatever that may be, is wondering what a utilitarian aesthetic practice might look like (I hesitate to say “art practice” to avoid complication) then they might look at how interactive practices approach the marriage of utility and aesthetics. Were I feeling brave I might even call it “utilitarian aesthetics” because there is nothing separating the aesthetics and utility. One is not a crutch for the other, in fact they are almost indivisible; the expression of one directly because of the other. For instance, Eyewriter:

'The Eyewriter project is an ongoing collaborative research effort to empower people who are suffering from ALS with creative technologies.' - Eyewriter.org

Tony Quan - Eyewriter

If one wants to learn about the Eyewriter project, most likely they would begin at the website, and with the video, which situates the projects in its conditions: Tony Quan, a graffiti writer, publisher and activist, paralyzed by Lou Gehrigs Disease or ALS, is approached with a proposal to create a tool for him with which he can draw. The situation of the project is foregrounded, it isn’t incidental, nor is it circumstantial: it is why. This is where interactive practices, socially informed practices, and politically informed practices converge: explicit situationality, explicit definition by conditions. Any art historian can point to any number of institutional critiques, from Duchamp, to Andrea Fraser, WochenKlausur, The Yes Men, the list goes on, of artists who recognize explicitly the situation of their work, who incorporate that situationality into their working practices as contemplative element but it is a different proposition to begin from a situation and proceed towards a resolution, a solution. Indeed, one ends up looking at something that looks like “doing things with art”. It also looks very much like a design strategy. One wonders where they diverge.

Eyewriter is a tool for making art, an explicitly empowering object that is an art object as well: computer vision software, two small cameras, a stylish pair of glasses, and a series of projectors, dimensions indefinite. The medium of its art is both as an object and as the work that is created with it. This isn’t to say that there is a perfect balance between object and utility, that they are weighted with perfect equality. Utility wins out; nothing is added that doesn’t contribute directly to the use to which it is put, the design dictum “form follows function” is obeyed, and yet the purpose to which is it is put, it’s conditions, are explicitly art. I could just as easily make the argument that Eyewriter is simply what is called adaptive design, that is, design modified for the conditions of the impaired. The first sentence of this paragraph could read “Eyewriter is…a design object”, and it would still describe in the same way, save for the clumsy ambiguity of “design object”. Every instance of the word “art” could be replaced with “design” and the work, the conception of it, would lose none of its meaning, power, or beauty.

Eyewriter Setup

Aesthetic discourses are fundamentally one thing: a way of reading. The artist creates a way of reading an object and the viewer agrees to that way of reading and hence understands the intent of the artwork. The content of the object can be the reading itself or it can be another referent altogether, both are completely legible, but without the readability itself then an artwork doesn’t function as art, a sentence doesn’t function as a sentence, a faucet doesn’t function as a faucet. What happens then when the discourse of a discipline that requires a different sort of legibility intersects with an art practice, with one of the recognized artistic discourses? For instance, what happens when industrial design intersects with concerns that place them in discussion with artwork? We can see a curious functionality in the case of Natalie Jeremijenko for instance: her ideas are put to work. The Institute for Applied Autonomy presents a similar conceptual puzzle; their early motto stated simply: “our shit works”. It functioning is its legibility; the criticality, aestheticized content all are engendered by an the functioning of the object as it is intended, by it’s utilitarian legiblility. Contrast this with Donald Judds now-classic remarks on his furniture “I’m very touchy about it being considered art…I’m not sympathetic to in-between positions.” Eyewriter looks like nothing more than a cheerful bleeding over of design and engineering practices into artwork and an aesthetic discourse that takes as its content the activity, the action, the act; a functional, playful in-between position indeed. Inspired artwork, littoral practices, whatever we call it, for instance, adaptive design inspired artwork, engages our use of systems, our ability to recognize that as a content that can be read, that can have values attached to it. As with many interactive practices in the US and UK, the working practice seems to begin with problems, problematizing, and proceeds to a play with the notion of research, an aesthetics of experimentation. Perhaps it’s our shared history with the Anglo-American tradition of philosophy, Russell and Wittgenstein to Rorty and Nagel, or a consequence of working with code and hardware, practices which seem to engender an appreciation for elegant utilitarianism, or the backgrounds in design or film or architecture that so many practitioners share. Whatever causes one attributes, there is, a shared practice, a discourse of practices, in which this project participates and which lend legibility and coherence to it.

So, then, in Eyewriter, what do we read? When we look at it, how do we see it? At its core, as in so many digital practices, is a transform: the transform from an eye movement to a projected line. The aestheticized object is the transformed action, the opening of possibility through what might almost be called a computational trick: take this analog process out in the world, digitize, then statistically analyze, and present. And Eyewriter is art because that transform is aesthetic, in its conceptual condition, as an understanding of its process, in its mediums of documentation, photo and video, and as practice, not simply a single object, but a way of making, to build collaborations and communities around enabling creative practice:

'The long-term goal is to create a professional/social network of software developers, hardware hackers, urban projection artists and ALS patients from around the world who are using local materials and open source research to creatively connect and make eye art.' - Eyewriter.org


A, if not the, goal of critical artistic practice is to engage the material of our lives, of our situations, in our engagement with art: vision, commonplace materials. What could be more commonplace than our computational interaction: our expectations of what computation is and can be? We can create narratives of aesthetic around our actions, our uses, our commonplace actions. This is no longer purely the critical art of our expectation of our reliance on systems and interfaces; this is an art of shaping narratives from our action and acting, our patterns of use, our desires for functionality, not simply to subvert them, but to enable them, to create art from them, act from them. Utility is narrativity and using is story-telling; as such, they are both a content and medium of emergent aesthetic practices and that is as rich, complex, and challenging a terrain as we can elect to engage.

Eyewriteris a project and initiative by members of Free Art and Technology (FAT), OpenFrameworks and the Graffiti Resarch Lab: Tony Quan, Evan Roth, Chris Sugrue, Zach Lieberman, Theo Watson and James Powderly. It is the winner of the 2010 Golden Nica award for Interactive Art from the Ars Electronica Foundation.