An Audience Interactive Media Symphony in Six Movements
Miroslaw Rogala
Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago
Divided We Stand: Interactive Art and the Limits of Freedom
by Edward A. Shanken

Divided We Stand is an interactive multi-media event created by Miroslaw Rogala and a team of collaborators that includes artists, musicians, dancers, computer programmers, and engineers. While the title of the work may ironically suggest the fruitful synergies that emerge from such interdisciplinary cooperation, it also suggests the tensions and ambiguities of American politics and culture: the melting pot of special interest groups struggling - sometimes together, sometimes at odds with each other - to acquire and preserve their piece of the American Dream. Rogala, who grew up in communist Poland and emigrated to the US in 1979, brings to his artworks a special appreciation of the vast freedoms and opportunities available in America, freedoms that could only be dreamed about behind the Iron Curtain.

In this light, Rogala's interactive aesthetic - in which viewers become active participators in regulating the qualities of the work - can be seen as an artistic embodiment of First Amendment rights and elected, democratic government in action. The viewer-participator in Divided We Stand can metaphorically cast a vote which influences the state of the piece at any given moment. But this freedom is always complicated by the contingencies of behavior, the inextricable inter-relatedness of the individual and the community, the need for limits that demarcate acceptable ways of being in the world, and the random elements of unpredictability that inhere in any real environment. Such issues are especially of concern with regard to art and technology at the turn of the millenium, in the wake of the conservative controversies over artistic decency that plagued the art world in the 1980's, and the threat of the Clipper Chip that ominously looms over the Internet like Orwell's Big Brother. Can we agree to disagree? Or are the terms of our disagreement such that we can find no room to allow each other to coexist without unduly compromising our freedom?

Divided We Stand exists both as an art installation and as a performance piece. As an installation, viewers can move around in the physical space the work occupies. Infrared sensors expand the effective working space beyond the installation's visible components to include the space of the viewer, whose behavior interactively modifies the state of the work itself. In this way, multiple viewers can explore the relationship of their bodies moving in space to the vast variety of images, sounds, and texts that the artist has embedded in its highly responsive structure. In this regard, the installation of Divided We Stand bears comparison with the artist's earlier works Lovers Leap and Garden: NatuRealization. In the former, the movement of a single viewer triggers video sequences that are projected on two large screens on opposite sides of the installation. In the latter, the movement of multiple viewers triggers audio sequences from four loudspeakers around the circumference of the space. Divided We Stand combines the interactive strengths of these prior works with new capabilities that enable it to respond in real-time to up to four viewers and trigger a multiplicity of images, sounds and texts. Moreover, rather then functioning as a simple on-off switch, the sensing and triggering mechanism has a much more subtle range of responses to the location and behavior of the audience, which enables participators to exercise variable control of parameters ranging from audio pitch and volume to video speed. 

The performance of Divided We Stand is conceived of as an interactive, multi-media symphony. Like a symphony, there are discrete movements that introduce various themes, instrumental combinations, and moods. The conductor plays a critical role in regulating the shape of the performance as a whole, and the performers are divided into three sections; metaphorically representing strings, wind-instruments, and percussion. Unlike a symphony, these sections generate not only musical sound, but produce a wide range of still and video images and written texts projected on the video wall, as well as recordings of the spoken word, specifically on the theme of First Amendment rights. The clear separation of the performers and the audience is also purposely breached. For it is the space of the audience that is divided into these three instrumental sections; and a representative member of a each section becomes a "performer" who manipulates an interactive "instrument" that specifies a section's performance. Section representatives may pass the instrument to other members of the section, who take turns interacting with the orchestra as a whole. Once a section has learned its part, the conductor may change the piece altogether, and the sections will have to learn to interact with a new compositional and orchestral structure. In some movements of Divided We Stand there may not be an explicit, audience-interactive component, but rather the audience will observe dancers and/or musicians performatively interacting with the images, sounds, and texts their artistic gestures generate. In another movement, the full ensemble of dancers, musicians, performance artists, and audience members may collaboratively interact in producing the work. In this way the piece recapitulates a range of modes of interacting with the world: actively, passively, individually, collectively, in and out of control.

As in Rogala's other interactive multimedia works, the viewer-participator simultaneously experiences the exhilaration of his/her own empowerment as an integral part of the piece while at the same time becoming aware of the responsibilities that come with that power. In Lovers Leap for example, the movement of a viewer-participator more or less controls the output of video sequences. But there is an unpredictable randomness as well, as one's perspective can be unexpectedly jettisoned through a virtual pretzel in hyperspace, a disequilibrating experience that greatly challenges the vestibular nerve, forcing the surrender of bodily control. Moreover, the imagery itself can leap from the urban landscape of Chicago to the island paradise of Jamaica where, beneath the surface of primitive simplicity, lurks the ominous presence of a military radar dish, a reminder of the colonial heritage of the Caribbean and the relationship of techno-aesthete immersed in the interactive environment to the friendly natives.

There is great freedom in Rogala's interactive multimedia works, but that freedom is neither total nor absolute, but always negotiated. For it is not always easy at first to recognize the relationship of one's actions to the imagery generated, and one must discover for oneself a code of behavior for interacting in order to achieve acceptable results. As the ancient Chinese book of wisdom, the I Ching, states,

Unlimited possibilities are not suited to man; if they existed, his life would only dissolve in the boundless. To become strong, a man's life needs the limitations ordained by duty and voluntarily accepted. The individual attains significance as a free spirit only by surrounding himself with these limitations and be determining for himself what his duty is.1
Divided We Stand is a virtual, artistic enactment of the contingent relationship between freedom and limitation, of the personal and collective search for establishing and voluntarily accepting codes of behavior. One's actions may summon imagery on one side or the other of the Great Wall, or the Berlin Wall - or one's actions may not be relevant at all - but one is always reminded of the other side and one's relationship to it. Moreover, in Divided We Stand one's behavior as an individual or section cannot be separated from the actions of one's neighbors. The evolving visual, musical, and textual composition is always an amalgam of multiple interactions amongst participators performing in concert or in contrast with each other. If Lovers Leap expressed the limits of individual freedom acting autonomously in an environment, Divided We Stand makes clear the further complications that emerge when people must acting collectively to mutually co-generate their environment. The work seems to ask rhetorically the degree to which we can responsibly limit selfish desires and learn to work together to simultaneously respect and fulfill each other's individual and collective needs for freedom. Can we productively combine our unique individual and collective qualities, or will they tear us apart? Do we stand divided or united?

1. The I Ching or Book of Changes, Richard Wilhelm, trans. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1990. p. 232.

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