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A study of interactive video and its self-awareness with the interrelation with technology and cybernetics

produced by: Bingxin Feng


You see me through your eyes - the circle clear small lens behind the protection glass. Then on the monitor on the wall, or on my desk, or in my hand, I see you seeing me, I see you seeing me that seeing myself. But when I’m seeing me from your eyes, am I watching me, or am I watching the other person, or am I watching s robot, or am I watching 1920 multiply by 1080 pixels?

Sometimes what I saw looks like me. Sometimes she is very different, with bigger brighter eyes, with the different color tone, with fancy masks, with distorted shape. For most of the time, I’m sure that’s me in your eyes, and I have fun seeing the grotesque me - from what you see. But there are some times, I was aware that you are not my eyes. What I see from your eye might not be me, not the real me being here and now. Then what am I seeing from you? And without you, is that even possible for me to really see myself seeing myself? (I can watch my body, but I can’t watch my eyes watching myself.)

The ignorance of not knowing what I’m seeing from your eyes enormously frustrated me. That made me feel bored with you. That took away my faith in you. You had been one of my most intimate friends. I had relied on you so much, such that I saw the others, the surrounding world through your eyes. So there’s no way that I could bear this ignorance. To bring back my faith, we have to find the answer.



Coming from a graphic design and filmmaking background, I’ve been always interested in video art, interactive video. The idea of using interactive technologies to create moving images, or rather combining interactive technologies and video camera has been germinating in my head for a long time. In the second term’s workshop learnings, our practices have been focused on interaction and we did quite a lot of interactive experiments with the camera. It was very fresh and interesting in the beginning. However, gaining the essential techniques and iteratively technical problem-sorting and practices was like breaking the dreamy bubbles for me. I felt a similar sense of playing with the Snapchat selfies filters, it was fun, creative, but empty. I reckon that’s the controversial nature of video and camera as the creative medium. If one could not see through, could not reveal what comes to the surface, camera and video would just become the tools for narcissists’ self-satisfying entertainment.

Therefore, in order to redefine the roles of camera and video in the fields from video arts to new media arts, and to investigate the understanding of self and identity in interactive video, this paper serves as a pre-study for my on-going interactive video performance/installation project. The theoretical frameworks for this research are drawn from fields including philosophy of mind, cognitive neuroscience, and cybernetics and post-humanist thoughts. And the correlated theories are framed in the context of new media and video art practices.

Art as a process

Before looking into video art, we need to discuss the dematerialization of artistic object - the shift of art as an object to art as a concept, a process.

When Marcel Duchamp deflated the aesthetics of materials by working with an assemblage of immaterial, and Sol LeWitt claimed A work is more important than the aesthetics of the object and focused instead on the communicated content, the definition of art had been shift from as a materialised object, to as a concept, or rather, process. Jack Burnham’s seminal 1968 essay “System Aesthetics” claimed that the “non-objects” of conceptual art establish a “transition from an object-oriented to a systems-oriented culture [where] change emanates, not from things, but from the way things are done” (Osbourne 1968) Similarly, in 1968 the Institute for Contemporary Art’s Cybernetic Serendipity exhibition in London celebrated computer-aided creativity and cybernetic ideas in contemporary dance, poetry, music, animation, sculpture, robots, painting machines and “all sorts of works where chance was an important ingredient” (Reichardt 1968).

So when art has become a concept, a process, we no longer emphasize the traditional materialist aspect if it, as unique, permanent, or aesthetically attractive. It’s not about how things look like, but about how things are done, how they could be done - which means chance and the uncertain possibilities in this process are what we shall emphasize.

Therefore, although it seems almost too fundamental, it is important to clarify that video art is not simply as a moving (and audible) version of a painting. The artistic value of a video art installation does not come from how aesthetically attractive it is (in both the image and the material) but comes from its idea, its concept. It is happening in the process.

Interactive Videos

Video: the visible part of television transmission. (Princeton University 2011a)

Video recording: a recording of both the visual and audible components. (Princeton University 2011b)

Video is the technology of electronically capturing, recording, processing, storing, transmitting, and reconstructing a sequence of still images representing scenes in motion. (Wikipedia 2011d)

When did video art become interactive? What does it mean for a video being interactive? And why did that interaction matter?

Following the threads of early video artists in 1960s, it was absolutely impressed to see how early the idea of the interactive video had emerged (even within the technology conditions at that time) and how thoughtful they were. Nam June Paik’s TV-Buddha (1974) and Bruce Nauman’s Live/Taped Video Corridor (1970) were considered as the most typical interactive video artworks. The difference between these works and the previous ‘non-interactive’ works was that the live video camera feed was used in these works, and so that the audience as a viewer was turned into a user of the medium. When they were seeing the video, they were also being seen in the video. With the live video camera’s eyes, the viewer became both the input source and the real-time output source of the video. 

Then why does it matter to see our self-bodies in the live camera feed?

“It was not just a matter of pointing it at something. It was about self-knowledge, and the camera could fracture the self. You realize that there are two dimensions: what you see and what you feel, and that was a huge area to explore.” (Viola 2010)

Even before Paik and Nauman, the American video artist Peter Campus had started to use the live video camera feed in his video installation Interface (1972) and Optical Sockets (1972-1973). In those works, he explores issues of spatial awareness and our perception of the body in the construction of identity through the use of unusual perspectives and multiple timeframes. Thanks to the live transmission of the electronic image, he embarks the visitor on a strange and unsettling experience: the confrontation with his double, separated from him in time and space, thereby challenging notions of the self (Viola 2010). Even in his other pre-recorded videos, the body of himself and the spatial awareness, time (timeframes) awareness were the protagonist of his videos: After tearing apart the previous himself from the center of his body, the current self came through (or saying was born), and then waiting to be torn apart by the future self later. When wiping his face, what revealed underneath is the other self of him. (Three transitions, 1973) Or the body is as a pure color entity, in a pure colour space, both the body and space keep changing their r-g-b color, then at some points, the body was invisible in the space, or outstanding in the space. (RGB,1974) So I reckon his works are a very good reference to study the self-investigation in video art. In a variety of simple behaviors/ performances of the self-body in the space, our consciousness of self has been challenged.

"Campus assigned an active, independent ontological status to the camera eye. It variously takes on the position of the artist himself, his reflection, an outside observer, a mental self-image, a double, an unknown protagonist." (Viola, 2010) That is to say, with the eye of the live feed camera on the viewer her/himself, the video literally evokes the third person, co-existing with one’s own self-image is an inherently paradoxical, tautological situation. Up to this point, it had only been a philosophical conundrum described in the literature, but now, with the advent of the live camera, it was given palpable form.  There’s a self (in the physical space) being/been captured by the camera, then there’s a self on the video image (the telematics/digitalized self), and there’s a present, here self watching the previous two selves. The technology of live video camera plays an essential role to see and reveal the multiple selves, and it’s not just a tool/instrument to technically achieve this purpose, but also poetic concept itself - to experience ourselves from outside ourselves, to objectify our subjectivity and to directly engage in our multiple selves, the hidden selves.

Also from the aspect of neuroscience, further neuroscientific research has led to speculation about a new class of neurons, termed ‘mirror neurons’ presenting the possibility that ‘action understanding’ is facilitated by internal simulation enlisting both motor and sensory systems in the brain (Rizzolatti and Craighero 2005). This research supports the idea that the neural description of action includes motor and visual components, in other words, both a participant’s view and an observer’s view (Breyer 2011).

Cybernetics and Post-humanist thoughts related to interactive video

To gain a better understanding of the philosophy behind the experience of interactive video art, it is necessary to highlight the interplay of technology, cybernetics, and post-humanist thoughts interweaved in the art evolution, from conceptual art to the new media art today.

Began with the Macy conferences in New York City between 1946 and 1953, the first wave of cybernetics emerged. Cybernetics stems from the Greek root kybernetes, meaning steersman or governor; Norbert Wiener defined cybernetics as the study of communication and control in both animals and machines (Wiener 1965). Cybernetics has since diverged into a number of fields, such as information theory, artificial intelligence, artificial life and bio-informatics (Fig. 1). According to Katherine Hayles, one of the first concepts to come out of the Macy Conferences was the reification of information flows such that information itself began to be considered more important than the physicality of matter, energy, and noise, thereby returning to a pseudo-Platonic ideal by envisioning information as a disembodied entity, an immaterial, transcendental idea (Hayles 1999). And it was reflected on the dematerialization of the art form during that time, since then the artists started to see art as the information, the concept, the process, which should not be trapped in the unique, permanent, and materialized form.

Then in the 1970s, the second wave of cybernetics, Gordon Pask extended its realm to include the study of information flows in all media (e.g. feedback loops in cosmology, cognitive science and the theoretical interaction of any actors/agents) (Pask 1975) Since then it emerged the notion of reflexivity, and the autopoiesis (which means a self-organised system that the organisms were structurally coupled with their environment). And in the art discourse, video art perfectly reflected these notions, because the feature of the video technology is inherently reflexive: Video’s closed-circuit feedback technology enables the transmission of live images capable of denoting their own structural organizations. Also, the camera feeds onto the screens are the visual representation that dematerialized the physical objects. And as discussed in the last chapter, the live camera feed in video art installations address a subject that is fully immersed and invite the viewer to self-reflexively play with his or her environment, continuing conceptual art’s tradition of transforming its audience into an active user rather than a passive viewer.

Following the first and second wave of cybernetics, the third cybernetics wave explored the digitally structured worlds that could be created either as virtual representations of our physical world or as autonomous entities within the field of Artificial Life. (Ilfeld 2010) With digital technology in new media art, the interactive video then employs third-wave cybernetic discourse and champions notions of emergence, virtualization, de-authorization, and digitization. In the experience of interactive video, the viewer, or rather the agent has been transformed into a virtual body, a digital representation, which is no longer unique and solid, but fluid and ambiguous, co-emergent with the other, with her/his surrounding environment.

Similar to Merleau-Ponty’s notion about the body and space: “I am conscious of my body via the world…I’m conscious of the world through the medium of my body.” (Merleau-Ponty 1989) The self-consciousness in an interactive video experience never just raised from the self, but emergent from the correlation between the self-body and its surrounds.


Cybernetic thought and art’s synthesis have revealed a poetic technicity within the technological and spawned an ever-emerging and continuous source of concepts and ideas. (Ilfeld 2010)

With understanding the role of the camera as a mirror or surveillance in the interactive video, and the philosophic meaning of our virtual bodies revealed in the video, I would have better support of theoretical and conceptual support to the further interactive video installation/performance projects.

Discussion of the Artefact

As an artifact as well as the on-going research experiments, or rather prototyping of this project, “Protection” is an experimental video project of using interactive video in a live stream video making. It’s a collaboration with the other textile designer, Jojo ACK.

The artifact was started designed before the research was done. Therefore part one of the design (the full figure scanning visualization part) was emphasized with the aesthetical attraction a lot. At that time I was mostly considering ‘how to make the video visual look good (and rich of visual element)’. According to what I’ve learned in this research, the aesthetic form should never be the first priority in interactive video design. And the from experience of the models and me as the videographer, the interactive process turned out to be very boring, and it doesn’t make much sense for the viewer and the participant (the model).

In the second part of the interaction, there’re the double figure of the model, from different cameras, seeing from different views, and one of the figures have been distorted. The two figure from two cameras could be seen as the different self of the model, from each one’s different time and space. And the distorted figure is dematerializing the model, capturing its living, ever-changing status as an emergent flow. During the filming, there was a big monitor by side, the model was able to observe himself in the interactive video. And what he had seen affected how he decided to move in the next moment, while how he moved reflexively affected what generated in the video. Within such process, the model had more awareness of himself, as well as acted more as an agent, an actor, rather than an object, a mannequin in the conventional shootings without the interactive process.

Then in the third part of the interaction,  through a Kinect camera, the model’s actions were captured and transformed into digital values in the computer programs, which then affected the ecosystem of his virtual environment. During the model’s interactive experience process, he was not just being in the solid, physical space, but also immersive in the co-emergent surroundings. To explore those surroundings, and to explore his agency in that space, the model kept moving in the space, not only being aware of himself but also being aware of the others, the surroundings. (However, from the practical experience, it also revealed a problem that when the one being aware of the surroundings more than her/himself, as a model with a task of showcasing the garments, it could be problematic for her/his agency in performance.)

From the designer and the models’ feedback, it was interesting and very potential to explore the model’s self-consciousness in the interactive video experience (as an experience that captured by the videographer’s camera as a documentary). However, for me, as the other, the outside camera eye, it was not only documenting. My agent of controlling the camera - what to see, how to see, were also affected by all the co-emergent livings/feedbacks, meanwhile, my conduct of the camera also affected the parameters in the interactive system. I was not an absolute observer out there, but part of the emergence. This artifact is my first experimental prototype in this research topic, further experiments would be continue based on on-going research.


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