Review of Here / There: Telepresence, Touch, and Art at the Interface
The MIT Press, Cambridge, MA, 2017
264 pp., illus. 54 b&w. Trade, $40
Here / There: Telepresence, Touch, and Art at the Interface by Kris Paulsen is an art historical overview of telepresence art. Paulsen lays out history in five episodes structured in chapters; early video art, television, mixed reality, telerobotics, and remote actions. In each of sections, the author focuses and closely inspects only a few artworks. So, the first chapter is dedicated to Vito Acconci's plays with video short circuits challenging a privacy buffer zone and works by Joan Jonas. The next chapter is dedicated to Chris Burden, being succeeded by a chapter analysing works by Kit Galloway and Sherrie Rabinowitz, closely focusing on their classic Satellite Arts. The fourth chapter goes around Ken Goldberg and Richard Wallace Data Dentata, capturing a concept of hapticity. In the last chapter analysis of Domestic tension by Wafaa Bilal and Harun Farocki's movies has been given a central place. The concluding part is the most interesting one, dealing with artworks having in focus drone wars.
A challenging theme of here / there as a paradigm of remote presence, the similar way now / then has been for broadcast media, self /other for bidirectional telecommunication, and living /data for computer-mediated networks (Paulsen, 2017: 148). Throughout the book, in a realm of clarifying the distinction between here and there, Paulsen clarifies conceptual differences among virtual reality and telepresence, elaborating on different historic effects of telepresence evolvement, as fantasy of presence, ethics of observation, inhabiting interface, digitisation of touch, etc., to finally arrive at the contemporary age in which people are able to enter hazardous environments without ever being endangered, which is quite common for a 'Playstation mentality'.
To be able to theoretically access telepresence, Paulsen revises Pierce's theory of indexicality with background theories by Merleau-Ponty, Vilem Flusser, and writings by Roy Ascott. Deciding to bridge a theoretical division between indexical and digital raised by theorists of digital visual imagery with relativisation, Paulsen formulates a tautology: ''The interface is an index. The index is an interface'' (p. 37). Consequences of such relativism he deduces onto 'teleepistemology', as defined by Ken Goldberg, by claiming that ''indexicality was never primarily or exclusively based on materiality or physical touch but instead has always been a doubted and dubious kind of sign despite its conventional use as evidence'' (p. 121). Rising telepistemological doubt in final chapters, the author concludes the book in the philosophical analysis of telematic art.
Written, as said, with well chosen and clearly exposed examples, avoiding crowding a book with unnecessary information or side-theories, still written in a polemic style, this book deserves to be on reading lists in every art history class and especially ones dealing with media art history.