Very Nervous System

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Article By Denise Whitmore

Very Nervous System is an interactive sound installation created by Canadian artist David Rokeby and presented at ‘The Venice Biennale’ in 1986, it was subsequently shown in many galleries and several outdoor public venues. The piece was a continuation of Rokeby’s interests in language, sound and human interaction with computers. His goal was to create a space (an interface) where the human body could move while video cameras captured those movements and transformed the information into ‘real time’ sounds. Rokeby constructed his own 16x16 pixel cameras to capture an image which was then analysed and played back as a series of pre-recorded music, the dancer’s left hand might produce one sound and his right hand another, so that it was possible for the participant to create complex compositions, depending on how vigorously he moved. Rokeby has been quoted ”The installation could be described as a sort of instrument that you play with your body but that implies a level of control which I am not particularly interested in. I am interested in creating a complex and resonant relationship between the interactor and the system.” Rokeby continued to refine this piece for a number of years continuously improving the technology until around 1990 when he moved on to new projects. At this time ‘Very Nervous System’ was seen as ‘cutting edge’ illustrating Rokeby’s underlying philosophy,“Because the computer is purely logical, the language of interaction should strive to be intuitive. Because the computer removes you from your body, the body should be strongly engaged. Because the computer's activity takes place on the tiny playing fields of integrated circuits, the encounter with the computer should take place in human-scaled physical space. Because the computer is objective and disinterested, the experience should be intimate.” And indeed as one watches a dancer interacting with this installation, there is a level of engagement that seems very private, the dancer seems oblivious to external surroundings and completely absorbed by the experience. It is easy to see why Rokeby has been described as a New Media pioneer.