Towards the Aesthetics of the Instrumental Medium
Digital Aesthetics Research Centre
Aarhus University, IMV, Helsingforsgade 14
DK-8200 Aarhus N, Denmark
+45 8942 9254
The Instrumental Medium
straight cause-and-effect relation. Yet it is everything but
Frieder Nake (5) has described the computer as an instru-
this: it is conventional, coded, arbitrary and representa-
mental medium. We use it instrumentally as a tool or an
tional, and as such also related to the cultural. Or perhaps
automaton while communicating with it as a medium. This
the cultural, conventional and representational elements are
constant shifting between the instrumental use and the
disguised as pure technical functionality. Furthermore, as
communicational and representational functions of the me-
manufacturers of technological consumer goods from cars
dium is inherent to most computer applications – even
and hi-fi equipment to computer hardware and software
computer games and net.art have a functional dimension
know, buttons have aesthetic qualities and should respond
related to navigation, interaction and functions such as
to a desire to be pushed. This could in aesthetic terms be
"save", "open" or "print", while functional software tools
interpreted as a desire for control, but perhaps it is also and
also have representational dimensions, often as an intrinsic
primarily a tactical desire. Buttons and knobs are supposed
part of the very metaphor(s) behind the software design.
to feel good – one can even read car reviews that criticize
the buttons and controls of a Korean car for their cheap
While one can with good reason argue, that HCI until re-
cently has focused too narrowly on the functional dimen-
sion, where the computer as a visible medium was sup-
Consequently buttons have aesthetics, though mainly of a
posed to disappear, the current aesthetic turn to some extent
kind we do not recognize – and in many cases perhaps
risks falling into the opposite ditch by focusing on the me-
should not recognize. My point here, is not that we should
diated dimension, even though it might be relevant for a
blindly complicate all the functional dimensions by dress-
while to emphasize the media dimension to counterbalance
ing them up as reflective, representational, only that the
the functionalistic dogmas.
dialectics of the instrumental medium is still there – recog-
nized or not.
Bolter and Gromala (1) have argued that interfaces have a
transparent or functional and a reflective media- dimension.
What should be underlined is that these two dimensions are
intrinsically interwoven in all interfaces. Even interfaces
I believe that we have to see the aesthetic semiosis and the
that tries to dress up as either 'purely' functional or 'purely'
functional as an intertwined chiastic1 relationship, where
artistic, representational have both dimensions. Just look at
the aesthetic semiosis can (should!) never be stopped or
how a plain ordinary 3D button in any interface highlights
short-circuited to the benefit of the functional (user-
the schism of the instrumental medium.
friendly etc.), if we do not want interfaces that enslaves the
user to the conceptual model of the interface (3), but in-
stead want enriching interfaces. Still we should also be
aware, that the semiotic and the functional are closely re-
A button indicates a functional control, by means of which
lated in the computer – here words and images actually do
something well defined and predictable will happen as an
things, become commands and code. This is especially the
effect of the user pressing the button; the fact that it is often
case when we talk about interfaces and interaction design.
rendered in 3D simulates a physical, mechanical cause-and-
effect relationship. Of course, we know that it is in fact a
symbolic representation and as such a mediation of a func-
1 The chiasmus is a rhetorical figure for an inverted rela-
tional expression, but we nevertheless see and interpret it
tionship between the syntactic elements of parallel
as something that triggers a function – and for good reason
phrases (a + b : b + a). They are often found in e.g.
indeed, since it is designed to perform in this way. It is a
Kierkegaard or Shakespeare, e.g. "I wasted time, and now
software simulation of a function, but normally this simula-
doth time waste me" (King Richard II). Also John F.
tion does not point toward its representational character,
Kennedy used chiasmus, while George Bush does not get
but acts as if the function were natural or mechanical in a
tools, but it will be wise to see how the one reflects the
other. And if we use the chiasmus functional aesthetics and
aesthetic function as a way of thinking, we will not be sat-
If we take the chiastic relationship seriously, where does
isfied with just beautified tools. A new version of Bauhaus
this get us? If we combine function and aesthetics in a chi-
is not enough, we need the re-think Bauhaus for the infor-
asmus, we get functionalistic aesthetics and aesthetic func-
mational age and for the instrumental medium. We need to
tion. How could this be understood?
design and look for interfaces where materiality, represen-
Functionalistic aesthetics could be an aesthetics that is pre-
tation, and functionality is counteracting and chiastically
occupied with its function, but where the aesthetic, repre-
intertwined: Where the representation becomes functional
sentational level is still important and part of the function.
and the functional becomes represented.
If the functional becomes too imperative we end up with
interfaces that under-estimate the user, that makes the user
stupid instead of helping the user to understand the repre-
Acknowledgements and further work
sentation simultaneously with the workings of the represen-
These musings are the temporary result of ongoing discus-
tation. In short, a too literal implementation of the What
sions of my research group and project, The Aesthetics of
You See is What You Get – in itself a reducing dogma. If
Interface Culture, http://www.interfacekultur.au.dk/ and
on the other hand, the balance is well kept, we get innova-
other colleauges, notably Olav W. Bertelsen.
tive and innovating representations and metaphors such as
e.g. the windows metaphor (Xerox Park, Macintosh, Mi-
crosoft, Linux, etc.). The window is a rich representational
I would be happy if anyone could provide me with further
metaphor with relations all the way back to the renaissance
references to people/theories, which parallel Nake's con-
(Alberti) and with strong connotations to new media from
cept of the computer as instrumental medium and carries
photography, cinema and the computer. And in the com-
this out in a thinking that does not limit the aesthetic di-
puter interface, the windows metaphor is not understood in
mension. Furthermore, examples and discussions of my
a narrowing literal sense, but as a representational meta-
categories are welcome...
phor – perhaps a metaphor of representation itself? As
such, this is an example of well-designed functional aes-
Aesthetic function is then an aesthetics, where the aesthetic,
1.Bolter, J.D. and Gromala, D. (2003) Windows and Mir-
cultural values are important, but which does not see itself
rors. Interaction Design, Digital Art, and the Myth of
as apart from the functional reality. If the aesthetic part of
Transparency. MIT Press, Cambridge, Mass., 2003
the equation takes over we end with either naïve, pure art,
which is unaware of its function and place in society or
2.Diebner, Hans H., Sebastian Fischer and Lasse Scherffig
with aesthetisation, where the aesthetics is used to disguise
(2003/04) Eye Vision Bot, Instute for Basic Research,
the functional, material levels – what the Marxists would
Zentrum für Kunst und Medien, Karlsruhe. Information
call the exploitation or the production process. Thus, we
about the work can be found here:
have advertising, branding storytelling – especially if these
marketing techniques are only used as sugar coating, that
The Eye Vision Bot uses images from the Medien Kunst
are applied after the production process and are not used to
Netz database: http://www.medienkunstnetz.de
convey new understanding. A better way to think of aes-
3.Dunne, A. (1999). Hertzian Tales - Electronic products,
thetic function would be to think in the terms of critical
aesthetic experience and critical design. London: Royal
functionality, critical interfaces, interaction aesthetics (2),
College of Art.
ways in which the aesthetics can reframe the functional.
4.Manovich, L. (2001). The Language of New Media.
Here we are of course closer to the domain of the cultural;
Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press
critical design, software art, culture jamming, some com-
puter games, and even some marketing. And HCI should
5.Nake F. (2000) "Der Computer als Automat, Werkzeug
not overlook the cultural interface (4).
und Medium und unser Verhältnis zu ihm", in H.
BUDDEMEIER (Hrsg.) Menschenbild und Computer.
Selbstverständnis und Selbstbehauptung des Menschen
im Zeitalter der Rechner. Bremen: Universität Bremen,
Thinking in chiasmus is difficult and perhaps that is why,
Medienkritische Reihe 3, 2000. 73-90.
we always end up with dichotomies. And of course I am
not arguing that digital art and HCI tools will end up being
the same thing. We will still have digital art and digital