Most of the intellectual models that were used in thinkingor representing the world, or so called reality, have first a life outside thelinguistic, intellectual or representational realm. The most classical one isPlato's "idea" (archetypos - archetypes) that had it's forerunner inthe "arche" (first) "typos" (impression), that is thenegative stencil that printed the coins of their money. It also applies to morecomplicated concepts like "repression", or "surplus value"that reflects the 19 century technical paradigm of the steam engine.
One of the most interesting features in the repertoire ofnew technologies is the interface that I would like to introduce as ananalytical category as much as a technical device. An analytical category is aset of descriptions and projections which explains, abstracts, or represents asegment of the world. In this sense an interface is not just, let's say, amodem, but also an abstraction which analyzes all different kinds of phenomena that previously haven't beenlooked at in this way. Again, Lacan needed a sophisticated concept of languagefirst before he could see the unconscious structured as a language. In thisrespect paradigmatical changes in the production of knowledge are essentiallydue to technological shifts that are by-products of changing theoretical,social and interest attracting factors.
So what is it that makes an interface an interface? Alreadymy 10 $ Webster's Dictionary gets it right: "a surface forming the commonboundary of two bodies or two spaces: the boundary between phases in aheterogeneous system, i.g. the surface formed between a liquid and a solid orbetween two immiscible liquids; (jargon) a device that bridges differentsystems, people, ideas, technologies etc.; point at which two elements of asystem join". As one can see, an interface is performing a translationbetween two or more heterogeneous systems that need to be bridged. It is apassage and a transformation of information, energy, or something that travelsat least from one realm to a different one.
Different to the communicational model with an equallyequipped sender and receiver that derives from the relatively simple 19 centurysignal transmitting technology interfacial communication involves heterogeneousparticipants without privileging a mode or a direction in the flux oftranslational exchanges. The two crucial axis of translation are the onebetween machines and machines, and the one between machines and people. Theclassical technical interfaces between machines were for example modemstransforming analogical signals into digital ones and/or back. Different tothem are the translations between machines and their users as far as they arepeople. The most emblematic ones are computer screens and computer programs.
Because of the relational, and not the essential, nature ofthe interface, the common division between hard ware and soft ware doesn'tapply as long as a computer screen or a computer program transforms, translatesand communicates information, data or energy. So, the interface has become adescriptive analytical dimension that cuts across traditional boundaries ofcategorizing things. In this respect I would like to recall some of Kant'sepistemological and philosophical categories that he thought were constitutivefor the production of knowledge. For Kant, perception and knowledge of theworld wasn't just a passive capturing of sensual data, but a synthesis of thesensual impute and transcendental categories of time and space adjacent to thesubject. This meant that there was no "Ding an sich", no "thingin itself", but only a mediated, translated knowledge of the world. Withthis idea, Kant was first to recognize the translational, mediated aspect ofthe constitution of knowledge and perception. Today, this could be called aninterfacial passage.
In the realm of knowledge production this interfacialpassage has an influential, constitutive effect but is often unrecognized asit's nature is to be transparent, translational, and of course functional. Thiscan be best demonstrated with earlier interfaces: For example: The history ofbookprinting. Every book mediates knowledge, transforms it, and distributes it.This qualifies a book as an interface, as does every single letter contained init. Also, language and writing systems bear upon the way in which knowledge isdisiminated depending on their inherent pictogrammatic or alphabetic roots. Avery interesting aspect of the Gutenberg invention was that from that momenton, books and book pages started to look different. The entire criticalapparatus of academic books that is taken for granted today, could develop fromthat point. Tables of content, indexes, footnotes, page numbers, paragraphsetc. appeared and were part of the big transformation of the scientificpractice. Direct access to specific parts of the texts became possible andchanged the way of working with texts that themselves started to be texts inresponse to texts that became portable, mobile, and personal.
It is not by accident that in Europe the big Lutherianschisms occurred after the invention of book printing. This technique of mobileletters basically created a conflict by shortening the distance to the originaltexts that became accessible without the many authoritarian commentaries thatfilled the few book's margins. Comparisons became possible and out of the manydifferent annals, archives, and calendars a linear chronological time could becreated that allowed history to become not just an effect of printing, but alsoeffective as a new force in the organization of knowledge. From thereader/copier of the library who was introduced to the handwritten text by amaster, a new reader emerged who was studying isolated, with personal volumesthat were only accompanied by an introductory text.
The new interfaces of the 15th century allowed a new readingand writing experience which permitted Descartes' methodological doubt andPierre de Ramée's spatialised and visually outlayed analyticalexpositions of problems and resolutions. Exact visual reproductions becamepossible and integral part of the scientific apparatus. Books that previouslylost precision from handwritten copy to handwritten copy were corrected andperfectioned from reprint to re-edition, assisted by an internationalcollaboration of corespondents that helped to accumulate and explode knowledge.Leibniz, known for his monadology - another tabula rasa draft to reinvent thelogic of the world - was not just the director of Hannover's library but he wasalso a theoretician of catalography, and an inventor of a new logical writingsystem - all new interfaces that somehow have to be seen related to theinvention of mechanical printing. The scholastical method of the middle age,that was demonstrating knowledge by imitating oral answer and reply schemes wasleft behind for a new visually oriented spatialization of knowledge thatallowed the separation of problems and solutions, as well as the integration oftables, maps, charts, and other visuals, for a new way of scientific working.
400 years later, the computer has become the main interfacefor the production of knowledge and information. With a computer one encountersa complex of different interfaces: the hard ware is made of all kinds ofinterfaces, but as wewll as the machine codes. The allgorithms as well as thegraphics and applications of programs are all different interfaces. Computersas a new interfacial power, have provoked a tremendous change in the wayvisual, textual and acoustical information is processed. Opposite to what manycurrent theories of new technologies suggest, these technologies do notdisempower old technologies and make them obsolete, but reinforce them. Forexample: publishing became desk top publishing and has so definitely undergonea big dynamisation. With this developement textual and visual communication canbe produced and forwarded instantaneously to virtually all places in the world.
Here, obviously, it would make more sense to talk about thepower involved and extended of those who access, handle and profit well fromthis new technological imperialism, than to give into abstract accounts of themere technical performance of it. It would be too naive to just point out thenew writing, image processing and publishing capacities that definitely havebeen changing almost any institution. But there is also another level ofcriticism necessary that I only have outlined vaguely: to what degree these newinterfacial logics are shaping our knowledge, our archival, administrative andinformational machines, our language and representational facilities, ourfactual and projectional imaginations.
Precisely in this interstitial critical space I try to placemy work that mostly observes and serves as interfaces. My "window"system is based on an abstraction of a computer window that could be refered asa soft ware interface. These computer windows are a site where today mostinformation is produced, processed, exchanged and translated. But I confine myusage of it only to the degree for which desk top publishing of academic booksand library catalogues might use it. And within this I am only interested inthe administrative and auxiliary aspect of it that, as outlayed earlier in thispaper, constitutes the major aspect of the printed interfaces: Indexes,footnotes, ISBN's, table of contents and computer commands that are necessaryto run the programs the publisher and the author might use at a particularpoint of the production of the book. These indexical and diagrammatic materials- which are not supposed to function as strict representation - hide outside aregular narrative syntax information and ironies that allow for a multiple ofintertextual readings. Different ways of presenting these "windows"(as wall painting, as transfer on a wall or an actual window, as a laminatedpiece, as a slide projection etc.) allow even to redefine architecture as aninterface, a technological space and try to show the discursive nature of theseentities.
My "citY lisT" series is a site specific systemthat consists of about 20 computer commands only. These commands are part ofthe interfacial environment of computers and function only as instrumentalizedlanguage. The interfacial options always stay the same but the name of the citychanges what gives this piece a kind of pseudo site specific aspect. In earlierdays a lot of the words had been used from a military and criminalogicaljargon. Mapping actual space with them is a way to show the diagramatical andtraffic aspect of it. Also it is a way to redefine actual space and stress thediscursive constitution of a space that, with a technological layer turns intoa kind of interface.
Other works of mine like the "ruler" series, the"c-garbage" series, the "marker" series, the"grid" series and the "file series" are also directlyplaying with interfacial footage from computer programs. Re-exporting them backinto non-electronic spaces and contexts not only allows the observation of thelinguistic, representational and functional aspects of these features in highlyinstrumentalized zones from an unusual side, but also opens up the game for newsymbolic rearrangement in its new host context. It is not just irony but alsoan intrinisc logic involved when stating resemblances between the formalaspects of these instrumental designs and visual modernisms that only rarelyrefered to the necessities the later were so dependent on.
PS: This text was written in 1992 and first published aspart of a larger text under the title “Foucault...bourr.text1” inDocuments, Paris (February 1993). The date of this text explains why Ihaven’t expanded my argument further onto the internet. The internet canbe looked at as a big interface hooking up a myriad of grouped and individualinterfaces. We are now in the middle of a massive paradigm that shifts the waywe communicate, do business and work and entertain ourselves. Even the title“interfacial passages” was in retrospect anticipating the massiveworld wide interconnection of everything with everybody on the interface - aslong as they are “connected.” The view on a screen is not anymorejust a window onto all the information given in a single work station but hasbecome a multi-media interface for any electronic information from around theglobe. Opposite to just a TV or radio receiver, the internet interfacesinformation in multiple ways, i.e. people can talk, write, (picture) shoot backsimultaneously.
Given these relatively cheap mass market possibilities my interface based works have been also reflecting and using the internet and its interactive structure. Not just have most of my installations with wall paintings broken out from the window structure and spread more freely all over the architecture - “exporting” from the screen into given architectonic space - but also do I maintain a permanent discussion forum on the internet where books I cite and quote are subject of my reading seminar. (go to: bbs.thing.net >> thread >> “rainer’s reading seminar”)