The Interface is Obsolete: A Critical Investigation of the Digital interface in Interactive New Media Installations

Shanbaum, Phaedra. 2017. The Interface is Obsolete: A Critical Investigation of the Digital interface in Interactive New Media Installations. Doctoral thesis, Goldsmiths, University of London [Thesis]

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Abstract or Description

My thesis proposes a critical framework for understanding the digital interface in interactive
new media installations. I aim at dispelling the instrumental, cybernetic, “action-reaction”
myth that surrounds the functions of the interface and that constitutes one of the main
limitations in its conceptualization today. I argue that a rethinking of the digital interface in
terms of its aesthetic and cultural properties is essential if we are to take digital interfaces
seriously as devices that inform or even, to some extent, structure our relationship with

Theorists who work in the interdisciplinary field of interface studies have historically been
preoccupied with the technical and instrumental functions the interface performs –
specifically with how it acts and reacts to pre-programmed information. To do this, they have
predominantly drawn on computer science and engineering perspectives. Thus digital
interfaces have commonly been understood as the symbolic software that enables humans to
use computers. My thesis approaches the digital interface from a different direction,
concentrating on the aesthetic and cultural aspects of the digital interface, and drawing on
scholarship from the fields of art history and media studies. In particular, I focus on critically
examining how various interfaces are defined within art environments and how they
influence the way subjects, objects, and the relationships and processes that exist between
them are understood in these disciplinary fields and practices. Throughout, I propose a more
expansive definition of the digital interface in interactive new media installations, positioning
it as a dynamic, hybrid, aesthetic and cultural process. I thus reformulate the problem of the
digital interface as a problem of making the often invisible aspects of the device legible.

Ultimately, I argue that the interface mediates, thus creates, to an extent, relationships
between viewer/participants, artists and artworks as well as influences the movements and
perceptions of those interacting with it. This reading enables me to conclude that the digital
interface can be seen as an important actor in positioning and (re)shaping specific ways in
which the self relates to technology, to artistic practice and to other human and nonhuman
beings in the current media culture. At the heart of this thesis is the notion that the digital
interface matters and that a critical exploration of it in aesthetic contexts can help us
understand and possibly reconfigure our human relationship with technology.

Item Type:

Thesis (Doctoral)

Identification Number (DOI):


Interface, Interface Criticism, Art and Technology, Digital Media Art, Interactive New Media Installations

Departments, Centres and Research Units:

Media, Communications and Cultural Studies


30 June 2017

Item ID:


Date Deposited:

05 Jul 2017 14:36

Last Modified:

08 Sep 2022 15:28


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