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David Rokeby, Very Nervous System (1983-)

Documentary Collection

David Rokeby interacting with Very Nervous System in the Lentos <br />Kunstmuseum during Ars Electronica 2009 (Linz, Austria) (video)
David Rokeby interacting with Very Nervous System in the Lentos <br />Kunstmuseum during Ars Electronica 2009 (Linz, Austria) (video)
Very Nervous System, Lentos Kunstmuseum, Linz, 2009 Very Nervous System, Lentos Kunstmuseum, Linz, 2009
Introduction to the Collection, by Caitlin Jones and Lizzie Muller

This is the second documentary collection that we have created for artworks by David Rokeby. In 2007 we produced a collection for the artwork Giver of Names (1991-), through which we developed a documentary approach to media art that captures the relationship between the artist’s intentions and the audience’s experience or, as we have described it, “between real and ideal” (1). The aim of this strategy is to acknowledge the fundamental importance of audience experience to the existence of media artworks and to create a place for the audience within the documentary record.

We believe this approach offers a productive way to reconcile how media artworks exist in the world and how they are represented in an archival context. In recent publications, we have begun to refer to the product of this approach as an “Indeterminate Archive”: a collection of materials that provides multiple perspectives of the work, as well as multiple layers of information, held together with—but not secondary to—the idea of the artist's intent (2). This indeterminate archive, we have argued, captures the mutability and contingency of the artwork’s existence, creating a more, not less, “complete” account. For a full explanation of how we developed this approach as well as a fuller discussion of the issues surrounding documentation, archives and audience experience, please see the introduction to our 2007 collection for the Giver of Names on the Daniel Langlois Web site (3).

The invitation to produce a second collection for Rokeby’s Very Nervous System (1981- ) came from the Ludwig Boltzmann Institute Media.Art.Research in Linz, Austria. This artwork is a particularly interesting case study for the Indeterminate Archive for two reasons. Firstly, it offers an unmatched demonstration of the importance of experience in media art. Very Nervous System is, as many audience members pointed out in our interviews with them, essentially an empty room until someone walks in and activates it. It is a work that is brought into being very literally through experience.

Secondly, it is a seminal work in the history of media art, with a lifespan of more than 28 years. Its celebrity and longevity pose some particularly interesting questions about documentation and contextualisation of media artworks over time and through change. The Very Nervous System’s celebrity makes it a fascinating focus from the point of view of the relationship between real and ideal. The work is, for many, one of the first successful artistic experiments in gestural, embodied interaction. An enormous number of texts have been written about it, and many curators and critics of media art have read about it without ever having experienced it themselves. This notion of an “ideal” Very Nervous System has, therefore, a powerful role within the discourse of media art. This begs the question of how the “real” individual experience of the work, here and now, relates to this powerful ideal.

The ideal form of the work is also complicated by its longevity. Together with the artist, we created a timeline as a means to track the technical developments of the work through its lifespan; this visualisation makes clear that Rokeby has been constantly remaking Very Nervous System since 1981—particularly in the first ten years of its life. The initial versions of Very Nervous System even pre-date Rokeby’s use of the computer (he introduced the Apple II to the process in 1983). The approach of the Variable Media Network (4) is clearly relevant here, helping to capture the “medium independent” qualities of the work that provide a unifying line through some radical changes in technologies and techniques. While tracking these changes may help us define the artist's "ideal" version of a work (what elements have not changed), it also complicates it. In addition to the technology, Rokeby's intent seems to have shifted subtly over the course of the work's life. This poses a difficult question—when we talk about Very Nervous System, to which "ideal" version of the work are we referring?

The technical development of the artwork during its history also signals the enormous technological changes in the everyday experiences of both Rokeby and his audience over 28 years. The lifespan of Very Nervous System has seen the birth of the personal computer, the World Wide Web, the mobile phone, the rise of surveillance, and the computer game culture. For Rokeby, one of the central reasons he cites for creating the work was to investigate the aesthetic possibilities of the interface between human beings and technologies. In his 1998 essay “The Construction of Experience,” (5) he describes Very Nervous System as an experiment in creating an alternative kind of interface that could explore the way human-computer interaction “design[s] the experience of being” for its users. How different would that experiment and those experiences have been in 1988, 1998 and 2008? Understanding the changing nature of the audience’s experience is a key part of understanding the way this artwork expresses and explores our relationship to technology and the way this impacts our understanding of the world.

Unfortunately, the opportunity for capturing the audience experience of the 1980s and 1990s is lost. The numerous videos of Very Nervous System from this period allow us to see instances of how the work was used and how it has changed over time, but they do not help us understand, from the perspective of the users, how it felt (the collection includes links to some of these historical videos). One way for this gap in the record to be partially addressed is to gather written recollections of experiences from the past. There is some enhanced functionality within this collection, where users are invited to post their own accounts of the work. In 1995, Very Nervous System was also made available as an independent software platform. We have made space within the collection for other artists to describe how they have used the software in other contexts. In this way we hope to build an image not only of past experiences but also of the resonance of the work in people’s memories, a dimension of audience experience not captured by the in-situ methods we conducted in Linz.

We are increasingly fascinated with the media art works of the past, but we have no access to the experience of the people who lived them. Realising what we have lost helps us to understand how important it is to document our contemporary experiencing of art. The experience of now often seems mundane and not worth recording. But recognising how opaque the experience of yesterday becomes underscores the importance of making experiential deposits in the archive now, so that people in the future can more fully understand the significance of artworks old and new.

Caitlin Jones & Lizzie Muller © 2010 FDL

(1) Jones, Caitlin and Lizzie Muller. 2008. Between Real and Ideal: Documenting New Media Art, Leonardo, MIT Press Vol. 41, Issue 4.

(2) Muller, Lizzie and Caitlin Jones. 2009. “An Indeterminate Archive for David Rokeby’s Giver of Names” in Proceedings of Re:live09 3rd International Conference on Media Art Histories, Melbourne, November 2009, The University of Melbourne & Victorian College of the Arts and Music, Melbourne, p 114-119.

(3) Jones, Caitlin and Lizzie Muller. 2008. David Rokeby, The Giver of Names (1991-) Documentary Collection. Daniel Langlois Foundation, Montreal. Available at:

(4) Depocas, Alain, Jon Ippolito and Caitlin Jones (eds.). Permanence through Change: The Variable Media Approach. New York / Montreal: Guggenheim Museum Publications and The Daniel Langlois Foundation for Art, Science, and Technology, 2002:

(5) Rokeby, David. 1998. “The construction of experience: interface as content” in Clark Dodsworth, Jr. (Ed) Digital Illusion: Entertaining the Future with High Technology, ACM Press/Addison-Wesley Publishing Company. Also available at: