The Faculty of Humanities

Department of Aesthetic Studies

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Project Description

The Aesthetics of Interface Culture


  • Project Head: Søren Pold
  • Deputy Project Head: Lars Kiel Bertelsen



The computer and its interface have long since penetrated a large number of cultural and artistic contexts - from digital entertainment industries to digital art forms and digital strategies for communications and design. Interface research nevertheless concentrates almost exclusively on functional working contexts. The Aesthetics of Interface Culture will instead focus on the cultural and aesthetic developments surrounding the interface. The developments call for a research dimension that is different from the predominant technical one - a dimension concerned with issues regarding content, and aesthetics and culture, and one that in collaboration with the existing technical research can develop up-to-date theories capable of conceptualising and addressing the increasingly important cultural and aesthetic role of the computer.

The project will run from 1 July 2004 to 1 July 2007.


The project aims to:

  • Carry out research in the interface based on cultural and aesthetic viewpoints
  • Strengthen the dialogue between aesthetic research and IT research
  • Create a foundation for new study programmes in digital aesthetics
  • Academically develop the aesthetic disciplines as regards interdisciplinary digitalisation
  • Establish working relationships with the art world, cultural institutions and the business community

Area of Research

The interface is the primary cultural form of the digital age. Here the invisible technological dimension of the computer meets human perception, interpretation and interaction. Here the bits become text, images, sound and space. The interface thus forms the intersection between technology and humanity. It can be valuable to perceive the cultural and aesthetic perspectives of the interface in the perspective of cultural theory and in an aesthetic, formal perspective. These two modes of perception may be designated as interface culture (Steven Johnson) and the cultural interface (Lev Manovich), respectively.

The concept of interface culture places the interface as a cultural form in connection with the postmodern media reality, in which cultural production increasingly takes place in the form of remediation (Bolter & Grusin), manipulation, filtering, quotations, etc. - i.e., it deals with already mediated material. Roughly speaking, the interface culture adapts the reality that already appears in the media, which is already layered and mediated. The very material used for the aesthetic and cultural adaptation becomes that which is already mediated, the media themselves and the conditions they set for the representation of reality and for knowledge and perception. Examples of this media aesthetics can be found throughout the aesthetic and cultural field - for example, montage forms within film and visual media, computer games as remediations of film and vice versa, sampling in music, intertextuality and media references in literature, the adaptation of the media image in the visual arts, the dramaturgy and performance of media. Especially in recent years, media and digitalisation have been placed on the artistic agenda of all art forms and genres. The interface culture and its aesthetics are the cultural answer to a digital media reality.

The concept of the cultural interface indicates that the computer interface itself acts and is thought of as a cultural and aesthetic form. The computer increasingly functions outside functional working contexts, making its way into the public sphere and the home, and becoming a medium for art, culture and entertainment - from computer games to the cultural use of the Internet and the production of digital art and culture. In short, the computer is used as a cultural machine and thus requires a cultural interface. Far away from the invisible, transparent and user-friendly interface, and in connection with the computer as a cultural medium, interfaces appear that are experientially oriented, seductive, musical, narrative, theatrical and artistic - a development that is significant well into commercial web design and experimental interface design. Furthermore, with "Augmented Reality" and "Pervasive Computing" a development has started by which the interface loses its screen-based framework; the computer "breaks out of the box" and is distributed as computer energy in the objects with which we surround ourselves. In connection with this development, there is, as argued for instance by the Play research group of the Swedish Interactive Institute (Göteborg), a need for new kinds of interfaces, new ways of constructing intersections between digital and physical reality, new ways of understanding and thinking about the interface as form altogether. In other words, it becomes necessary to regard the interface as a cultural and aesthetic form with its own forms of representation, arising from the encounter between traditional forms of expression and the digital forms of the computer. Finally, one could argue that with the developments in biotechnology, the interface problematic is now entering the body and therefore challenging the clear localisation of the interface or the junction between technology and body. This development has ethical as well as aesthetic consequences that are also reflected in current digital art and that call for collaboration between the humanities and natural science.

The research carried out by the project will assume the form of analytical studies, theoretical and historical reflection and experimental aesthetic practice in cooperation with external and guest partners. The research project will provide a framework for a field intersected by the following axes:

  • From the contemporary diagnosis of cultural theory to the history of aesthetics
  • From the individual aesthetic forms of expression to the inter-aesthetic and the interdisciplinary
  • From the aesthetic work to aesthetics in design and contexts of use
  • From the analysis of aesthetic artefacts to aesthetic theory and experimental practice

This is expressed in the organisation of the project and in its sub-projects :

Perspectives for Aesthetic Research

As is evident from the above, it can be valuable to discuss the interface on the basis of an aesthetic perspective as a problematic related to the conditions set by the digital media for knowledge and perception, to the mediation and representation of art and culture, and to the new digital forms and expressive possibilities. At the same time, a large number of cultural, commercial and artistic uses of the computer (from computer games to digital art forms and digital culture, entertainment and design) demand research into the cultural and artistic aspects of the interface. This research project will bring aesthetic research on a par with the interface as form, and will therefore contribute to a new understanding of the computer medium in dialogue with information science and computer science, and contribute to a digital-aesthetic reorientation in the aesthetic disciplines.

The project revolves around research in digital aesthetics, a field of research that by virtue of its object, the multi-media interface, necessarily takes place in an inter-aesthetic framework, since digitalisation concerns visual, textual, spatial and sound elements. Currently, there are a number of multi-media expressions, the aesthetic forms of expression converging in, for instance, computer games, net art, interactive fiction and digital installations. This does not mean, however, that there is still no reason to consider these multi-media expressions on the basis of individual aesthetic starting points and discuss them as (new) forms of literature, music, theatre, film or art. The digital aspect concerns of course the individual aesthetic disciplines, creating new possibilities and interpretive frameworks for them and thereby challenging them and making it relevant to enquire about the nature of art, literature, theatre, film and music, about how art is produced and received, and how aesthetic expressions are conceived. Discussing digital forms of aesthetics in respect to aesthetic traditions creates a (much needed) historically and theoretically based understanding of digital media.

Especially the fact that the interface is a technological and media aesthetic contributes to challenging traditional conceptions of aesthetics, and the interface thus brings aesthetics in close contact with developments in media technology. This is of importance in the understanding of the inter-aesthetic tradition outlined above, but can at the same time lead to reorientations (artistic, theoretical, historical) within the individual aesthetics. Alone and together the aesthetic disciplines make an effort to understand how they are challenged by digital technology, and how the individual aesthetic discipline contributes to an understanding of the digital element. In an inter-aesthetic and individual aesthetic framework it becomes necessary to reconsider how the respective aesthetic disciplines can be regarded as perspectives in an inter-aesthetic digital discipline. In recent years, the digital media revolution has been linked up with elements in the history of aesthetics such as the Age of Enlightenment in the eighteenth century, the breakthrough of visual media in the nineteenth century, the inter and individual aesthetic avant-garde forms of the twentieth century, and the media awareness of modernism and postmodernism. In this way an (aesthetic) historical framework is established for understanding digital media, while at the same time digital innovation is used as a new lens through which to view the development and history of aesthetics. In light of this awareness of the history of aesthetics it becomes possible to theoretically and analytically consider how aesthetics is challenged by media developments and at the same time how aesthetics explores media developments.

Perspectives for IT research

Concurrently with the spread of the computer in the cultural sphere, the traditional IT disciplines have become increasingly interested in aesthetic issues and perspectives. This interest is evident in the Human-Computer Interaction (HCI) research area, in new paradigms like Pervasive Computing and Interactive Spaces, as well as in new understandings of the programmer and the cultural significance of programming, as indicated by the Open Source movement. Within the pioneering hypermedia research a strong tradition of interdisciplinary cooperation has been established between literary/aesthetic and computer-science perspectives, and computer-science environments have also participated in experiments on electro-acoustic music. Similarly, there has been an interest in theatrical spatialities and visual gestalts within HCI and computer graphics, both as regards 2D and 3D. Historically, Arts and Sciences perspectives have played an important role in the interdisciplinary development of the computer and computer science from calculator to media machine; and with the current transformation of the computer to cultural machine, it is possible to observe new openings and an interest on the part of computer science and information science. A research project in the aesthetics of interface culture will contribute to the increased participation of Danish aesthetic research in this internationally oriented interdisciplinarity.

At the same time, the cultural interface is spreading, and the time is ripe for carrying out independent research in this development. Danish cultural and artistic material is being developed on the Net, the Ministry of Culture has begun focussing on the dissemination of culture and cultural institutions on the Net, work is being done on aesthetic aspects of web design, and trend-setting computer games are being developed; yet there is no coherent research context to focus on, connect, and publicly promote these developments in the field of IT and the cultural sphere. A research project in the aesthetics of the interface will be able to solidly contribute to focussing on the cultural and artistic aspects of IT in this country and to bringing Denmark on a par with the international developments to which our neighbouring countries have already made ambitious contributions. Aesthetic forms of expression characterized as distinctive and avant-garde only a few years ago are already setting the agenda today in digital design and computer games; and with the speed of the developments in IT, there is also a need for aesthetic and artistic experiments with digital expressions in respect to innovation and business development - fundamental aesthetic research in digital media and their manifestations.

Translation: Stacey M. Cozart

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Revised 2010.02.17