Deep Engagement, 2010

"Reception in a state of distraction, which is increasing noticeably in all fields of art and is symptomatic of profound changes in apperception, finds in the film its true means of exercise."

Walter Benjamin’s treatment of reception in a state of distraction for the era of the cinema is arguably even more accurate for today’s landscape of ubiquitous mobile media devices. There is so much accessible information on the horizon that the norm is now to absorb superficial experiences from a wide range of phenomena, rather than to gain a deep understanding of any particular one. It seems that this horizontal sampling requires a trade off with vertical, or deep investigation of a single entity. An overwhelming sense of distraction, ubiquitous neglect of the body, and a felt lack of meaning, trouble today’s user. Yet, an installation by Marcel Duchamp, a film by Charles and Ray Eames, and a new interface developed by Microsoft, reveal strategies to counteract these concerns. Sixteen Miles of String, Powers of Ten, and Kinect provide frameworks to heighten and sustain awareness, enrich embodied experience, and recognize meaningful relationships in the Information Age.

Marcel Duchamp created his installation, Sixteen Miles of String, as part of the 1942 exhibition, First Papers of Surrealism. Andre Breton curated the exhibition, featuring notable Surrealist artists who were exiled from Europe during World War II. In fact, the artists’ exile was the thematic center of the show, which raised funds for the Coordinating Council of French Relief Societies. The title of the exhibition, First Papers of Surrealism, referred to the official documents that the artists had to procure in order to immigrate to America. Sixteen Miles of String, with its crisscrossing lines that impeded the viewer’s normal path through the gallery space, was often interpreted as a reflection of the artists’ displacement.

Many critics have argued that the installation, barring the presence of the spectator from the institutional space, paralleled the avant-garde’s state of exile from nationalized Europe during World War II. Duchamp, however, asserted that this perceived boundary was not real: "It was nothing. You can always see through a window, through a curtain, thick or not thick, you can see always through if you want to, same thing there.” To be sure, John Schiff’s photograph of the installation presented what looks like an un-enterable space. Yet visitors of the exhibition attested to openings in the network of strings. The spectator was able to “reach closer proximity [to the paintings] by means of certain strategically placed apertures.” Perhaps the installation was not meant to block the viewer’s entrance into the space or her consideration of the paintings within; instead the strings disrupted the viewer’s habituated trajectory through the gallery. They challenged her to actively engage the space with her body, to find pores in the permeable membrane of string, and figure out how to pass through.

Although Sixteen Miles of String was installed twenty-five years before Society of the Spectacle was published, it functioned as a pre-Debordian situation. In Society of the Spectacle, Guy Debord posited that experience is increasingly mediated by images, and this mediation causes the degradation of human relationships, perception, and critical thought” He explained that the only remedy is the “revolutionary reordering of life, politics and art” which leads to “a sense of self-consciousness of existence within a particular environment or ambience" . Duchamp’s installation fulfilled this charge as it undermined the institutionalized image of the exhibition display and compelled the viewer to navigate according to unfamiliar rules. The indeterminateness of this process constituted a “directly lived” experience, and momentarily shattered the illusion of the spectacle.

Likewise, the destabilized perspective in the short film, Powers of Ten, raised the viewer’s awareness of the potential for social and political reorientation. Charles and Ray Eames directed Powers of Ten in 1968, the same year that the world erupted in student protests, which were heavily influenced by Debord and the Situationists. The film was based on the book, Cosmic View, by Kees Boeke and was distributed by IBM. It begins with a couple enjoying a picnic in Chicago, and over the course of the film’s nine-minute duration, the camera zooms out to 1024 meters and then back in to 10-16 meters, at a rate of 101 every ten seconds.

The film only rests on the level of the daily life for a moment before a continuous transformation of scale removes the viewer from society’s ingrained operating principles. Spectacular time is replaced by unimaginable velocity; there is no work to be done; there are no commodities to purchase at the outer limits of the universe or within a field of tiny quarks. For nine minutes, Powers of Ten visually releases the spectator, “who has been drugged by spectacular images,” from her sedated condition.

Similarly, Kinect, a new controller-free interface, offers an alternative to the reductive model of the passive, contemporary user. Despite some technical shortcomings, Kinect suggests a significantly more comprehensive form of user involvement, making it a very “cool” medium. Kinect allows the user to interface with gestures and speech. Moreover, Kinect-based artworks such as Robert Hodgin’s Body Dismorphic Disorder, demonstrate the user’s ability to intervene and re-structure the 3D images in real-time, using code. The heightened engagement of the user is also apparent in the creation of an open-source driver for Kinect and the resulting artistic experiments. Hacking and modifying a corporate product is subversive in and of itself. And, the astounding number of open-source materials already in circulation testifies to the viability non-corporate, participatory development.

Creative activation of the body is another key strategy for cultivating mindfulness. In Sixteen Miles of String, the spectator most likely improvised motions outside of his familiar routine in order to pass through the portals in the strings. The viewer is no longer a set of eyes, but an embodied explorer, and in the process she gains an understanding of human life as “embedded in a material world of great complexity.” Essentially, Duchamp’s installation provides a field of obstructions that forces the spectator to traverse thoughtfully.

Powers of Ten presents a more conflicted treatment of the body. On the one hand, the short film begins on the human scale. In this sense the body is the zero, the starting point, and central anchor of the zooming journey. Additionally, the film provides a deeper understanding of how the body is situated in space and order of magnitude. On the other hand, Powers of Ten relies on the static relationship between viewer and screen. Unfortunately, being a film, Powers of Ten, does not create a synthesis in which “embodiment replaces a body seen as a support system for the mind; and a dynamic partnership between humans and intelligent machines replaces the liberal humanist subject’s manifest destiny to dominate and control nature.” The film still requires that the viewer suppress the movement of her body for the duration of the film.

Kinect reintroduces the user’s movement in physical space, in conjunction with virtual experience. Although the user still exists between the immediate physical and the displaced virtual, Kinect prioritizes her bodily movements, whereas the dominant mouse and keyboard interface limits them. From gymnastics and dance, to martial arts and soccer, the range of human movement is enormous and varied. Fortunately, consistent practice ensures improvement. As a result, continued implementation of technology like Kinect has the potential to augment embodied experience: “The effects of technology do not occur at the level of opinions or concepts but alter sense ratios or patterns of perception steadily and without any resistance.” Kinect may enable graceful mastery of the body, while simultaneously utilizing it as a tool in information spaces. Kinect’s use of infrared structured light technology moves in the direction of posthuman symbiosis: “grounded in embodied actuality rather than disembodied information, the posthuman offers resources for rethinking the articulation of humans with intelligent machines.” Enriching embodied experience will, in turn, augment the quality of human consciousness, which is inherent to the body.

It is clear in the discussion of embodiment above, that understanding relationships between seemingly discrete entities allows the viewer to develop more creative interpretations and to make more meaningful decisions. In Duchamp’s installation, rather than perceiving the strings as visual obstructions, the viewer may choose to follow the strings as lines of connections between subjective artworks. One of the coordinators of the show, Elsa Schiaparelli commented on how the strings served as guides, “directing visitors to this and that painting with a definite sense of contrast.” In this sense, Sixteen Miles of String presents an early example of relational aesthetics. Duchamp creates an encounter during which the viewer’s attention is focused on the intersections between discrete expressions of reality in paint, as well as the inter-relations of the exhibition’s audience: “As part of a ‘relationist’ theory of art, inter-subjectivity does not only represent the social setting for the reception of art, which is its ‘environment,’ its ‘field’ (Bourdieu), but also becomes the quintessence of artistic practice.”

In Powers of Ten, the fluid shift between orders of magnitude forces the spectator to continuously reorient her relationship to “formulations” in space, generating a compelling experience of relativity: “It popularizes (in the best sense of the word), post-Einsteinian thought the way the telescope popularized Copernicus; the effect is almost as upsetting. The spectator is in perspectiveless space; there is no one place where he can objectively judge another place.” This Mandelbrot-like continuum places the burden of image-making on the viewer. Consequently, the viewer turns to pattern recognition and critical thinking to create meaning: “Form only exists in the encounter and in the dynamic relationship enjoyed by an artistic proposition with other formations, artistic or otherwise. There are no forms in nature in the wild state, as it is our gaze that creates these, by cutting them out in the depth of the visible.“

Kinect provides a similar platform for meaning-making. The controller-free interface creates a more complex relationship between physical reality and virtual reality: “Form can only come about from a meeting between two levels of reality. For homogeneity does not produce images: it produces the visual, otherwise put, 'looped information'". Thus, the user actively considers the complex negotiation of these two realities, instead of passively absorbing an untroubled visual experience. For example, in Body Dismorphic Disorder, Hodgin amplifies the structural distortions that occur when the user’s image is captured as infrared input. This intervention augments the user’s awareness of the noise that occurs with image capture, and gives her a degree of control in the process.

To be sure, there are artists and designers who create images, encounters, and platforms with the potential to augment mindfulness; however, it is important to remember that the viewer or user is always primarily responsible for sustaining her own engagement. The word “sustained” comes from the Latin root sustinëre, which means to hold up or endure. Similarly, the word “engagement” was first used in the 1600s to describe a formal commitment to battle . Thus, both “sustained” and “engagement” imply a continuous exertion of effort with an exclusive focus. The commitment to struggle with an idea or set ideas, despite boredom, distraction, and other obstacles cannot come from external designs. Ultimately, the most effective strategy for the user to sustain an examination is to follow in the footsteps of Duchamp, the Eames, and Hodgin, and enter into a maker’s discourse of her own.


Benjamin, Walter, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” Illuminations, (Schocken Books, 1968).

Demos, T.J. “Duchamp’s Labyrinth: First Papers of Surrealism, 1942,” October Magazine. Summer 2001, No. 97, (Pages 91-119). Posted Online March 13, 2006.

Lewis Kachur. Displaying the Marvelous (The MIT Press, 2001).

Edward Alden Jewell,“Surrealists Open Display Tonight,” New York Times, 14 Oct 1942, ProQuest Historical Newspapers (1851-2003).

Guy Debord, Society of the Spectacle, (Black and Red, 1983).

Simon Ford,The Situationist International: A User’s Guide, (AK Press, 1950).

Marshall McLuhan, Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man (The MIT Press, 1994).

Katherine Hayles, How We Became Posthuman: Virtual Bodies in Cybernetics, Literature, and Informatics, (The University of Chicago Press, 1999).

Nicolas Bourriaud, Relational Aesthetics (Les presses du reel, 2002).

Paul Schrader, “Poetry of Ideas: The films of Charles Eames,” Film Quarterly, Spring 1970.