Book Review: Jeffrey Shaw: A Users Manual

Jeffrey Shaw. A Users Manual From Expanded Cinema to
Virtual Reality.

By Anne Marie Duguet, Heinrich Klotz, Peter Weibel, and Jeffrey Shaw. Editions ZKM/Cantz Verlag, 1997 Bilingual, English and German

Pioneer virtual-media artist Jeffrey Shaw has maintained a prodigious output of interactive media artworks for many years, works which are both conceptually and technologically sophisticated. A new volume from editions ZKM/Cantz Verlag, Jeffrey Shaw: A Users Manual, documents his work over almost 30 years, and includes essays by Peter Weibel and Ann-Marie Duguet as well as an introduction by Heinrich Klotz and texts by Shaw himself.

The bulk of A Users Manual is a lavishly illustrated pictorial chronology of Shaw’s work, with short explanatory texts. This section is followed by excerpts from longer texts by Shaw mostly on the subject of virtuality and mostly dating from the late ’80s and the ’90s, but one polemical text from 1969 is included.

ln this book we follow the career trajectory of a particular virtual media artist through various media
and experiments culminating in some ground-breaking virtual media works. This allows us to see certain continuities in Shaw’s work. A Users Manual documents the fact that the skills and training required for interactive and virtual media artwork are not found in the conventional training of the art academy. Jeffrey Shaw’s trajectory through architecture, inflatable public sculpture/events, expanded cinema, and pop-music visual spectacle is only one of the many possible trajectories which could equip the virtual and interactive media artist with experience of real-time development, spatial
manipulation, and the subtleties of aesthetically manipulating the responsive user through an interactive interface and narrative.

The book also demonstrates that the history of happenings, events, performance, conceptual art, and the whole phenomenon of post-object art of the late ’60s and ’70s can be seen as thought experiments for an art medium, an art technology that did not yet exist. Audio-visual art spectacles were experiments for immersive media; performance prepared for the interactive interface; conceptual art was “cultural software” par excellence.

Peter Weibels’s essay “Jeffrey Shaw: A Users Manual” begins with Shaw’s work in “Expanded Cinema” in the late ’60s: “Everything that digital technology would some years later make possible to an intensified degree… was anticipated by the analog technology used in expanded cinema events.” The final part of the essay makes some rather giddy and peculiar claims – l found myself hoping that some of this was the result of translation. Weibel states that, “Without Shaw’s output we would be unaware of the full range of electronic media art…The way digital technology can be used to transform spaces into images, images into texts, would still be a secret, likewise the insight that spaces, images, and texts are nothing other than diverse codes for experiencing the world and instructions for using the world.” As much as I admire Shaw’s work, it seems not only unnecessary but obfuscating to build such panegyric. These things were not, and would not remain “secret” without his work – they are the stock-in-trade of digital manipulation. The insights that follow are likewise not Shaw’s discovery, but those of Jacques Derrida, Henri Lefebvre, Roland Barthes, and a host of other semiotic and Poststructuralist theorists.

Among the other essays is Anne-Marie Duguet’s “Jeffrey Shaw: From Expanded Cinema to Virtual Reality.” Duguet offers an eloquent and erudite account of Shaw’s oeuvre in the style of conventional art historical monographs. Through her essay, Shaw’s career emerges as a series of experiments guided by a series of fundamental, stable concerns.

Duguet also locates the origin of Shaw’s interactive, multimedia works in the art of the 1960s and 1970s, but for her, Shaw’s work has been directed by a number of other concerns including the notion of virtual totality, the unification of virtual and real space, the invention of the interface, the desire to create an architecture of total immersion, the use of text as a visual, conceptual, and narrative element, and the investment of virtual spaces with symbolism.

For her reading of Shaw’s work, Duguet draws on an impressive number of art historical references; her grasp of critical theory, cinema, and semiotics attests to her breadth as a scholar. It is thus surprising to find some gaps in her critical analysis. According to Duguet, Shaw’s whole oeuvre reveals a major shift “from interest in representation alone to interest in the generation of that representation and its experiential possibilities.” The artist’s interest is no longer just in the image but in “the whole apparatus which produces and circumscribes that image, namely a complex set of technical, perceptual, discursive, economic, psychological, and institutional conditions.”

Shaw’s works do demonstrate great interest in artistic and technical processes and the discursive, perceptual, and psychological conditions which produce and affect the work of art; but with the exception of his references to museums, it is rare to find allusions to institutions and practically impossible to encounter considerations of economic factors or gender and sexuality.

Given Shaw’s chosen media, the choice of book as medium is anachronistic. A book is inadequate for truly documenting linear time-based media such as film, and for documenting media of more than two dimensions, such as sculpture. It is thus doubly inadequate for documenting a media that combines both these forms with interaction and (potentially) sound. The ready availability of documentation of Shaw’s work on CD-FOM and video makes up for this, though it is odd that such sources are not indicated or included in the book.

-Simon Penny and Maria Fernandez