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Interactivity in contemporary art

Benjamin Low Teck Hui Interactive Art Level Two Student ID 12406 HP no. 97974063 benjamin.low@mylasalle.sg

An academic paper submitted in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the Diploma of Media Arts (Interactive Art)

LASALLE College of the Arts Benjamin Low Teck Hui 2011

Signed Statement This paper represents my own work except where otherwise indicated or acknowledged. No part of this essay has been or is concurrently submitted for any other qualification at any other academic institutions. Signed: ___________________ Name: ___________________ Student ID number: ___________________


As Marshall McLuhan famously said in his book Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man (1964) - the medium is the message. This is true for art as it is true in mass media, whereby the format of the medium itself is an interesting topic of study. The medium of mass media itself is commentary on how society is evolving. Television led to a revolution in how mass media could be consumed as moving images and propagated the reach and power of corporations to reach out to audiences.

In the world of art, the invention of the camera, with the mechanical reproducibility of the image, led to a decline in painting as an art form. The invention of television and cinema led to artists appropriating the medium of the moving image to produce video art works. The invention of the Internet in the 1990s led to Net art being popular in the 1990s.

Riding on the ubuiquity of the Internet, artists have been quick to use the Internet to share their works and their own created tools as a reaction to the corporate power of commercial tools. The open source movement in the 2000s has led to a contemporary movement in art which is still being defined, whereby the choice of medium is no longer confined to one category, but can straddle a confluence of screen, image, sound, virtual and public space which is invariably interactive in nature.

Technology is a driver of how art is made. Technology also makes interactivity possible in artworks in ways that have hitherto been impossible. This paper traces how interactive art has

evolved via art-historical antecedents (Part 1) and its contributions to contemporary art (Part 2). PART 1 - Tracing the roots of interactivity in art

From Modernism to Post-modernism Tracing the history of how art has evolved since the 1950s, there is clearly a movement away from the traditionally defined forms of painting and sculpture towards other aesthetic possibilities. Conceptual Art first led this movement towards non-traditional art forms. The emphasis on form veered towards an emphasis on the idea or concept behind art.

Contemporary art has had its roots in important art-historical antecedents such as Dadaism, Pop Art, Media Art etc. However, within the context of interactivity in contemporary art, it is probably Conceptual Art that has exerted the most influence. The Dada movement was much in part a reaction to the industrialization of warfare and the mechanical reproduction of texts and images, while the Pop Art movement arose from an engagement with commercial culture.

The term Conceptual Art was first coined by Sol Le Witt in his influential essay Paragraphs of Conceptual Art (1967). He says In conceptual art the idea of concept is the most important aspect of the work . all planning and decisions are made beforehand and the execution is a perfunctory (done in a manner of duty) affair...the idea becomes the machine that makes the art.

In Art into Ideas: essays on conceptual art (1996), Robert C. Morgan described

conceptual art as a significant and innovative method or type (not of style) of artistic practice on the eve of the Informational Age and noted a parallel socioeconomic phenomenon, the penumbra between industry and post-industry. Conceptual art straddles modernism and postmodernism, and is an art-historical conduit between the Industrial and Information Age.

Conceptual Art lays the foundation In his essay Art in the Information Age: Technology and Conceptual Art (2002), Edward A. Shanken writes that conceptual art emerged during a moment of intensive artistic experimentation with technology. He also argues that the apparently disparate genres of Conceptual Art and Art and Technology have parallels and are reflections and constituents of broad cultural transformations during the information age.

In a manner very similar to how interactive art can be described, Shankens writes that In interrogating the relationship between ideas and art, conceptual art de-emphasizes the value traditionally accorded to the materiality of art objects. It focuses, rather, on examining the preconditions for how meaning emerges in art, seen as a semiotic system. In an interactive artwork, the audience actively engages the artwork within a system of sign exchange and cocreates its meaning within the semiotic framework created by the artist.

Art critic Jack Burnham, who curated the exhibition Software, Information Technology: Its New Meaning for Art (1970, Jewish Museum of New York), mentioned in Systems Esthetics that there is a sense that with software technology, art had traversed from the object to the idea, from a material definition of art to that of a system of thought.

Burnham also expressed his interest in how a dialogue evolves between the participants - the computer program and the human subject - so that both move beyond their original state.. He further theorised this bi-directional exchange as a model for the eventual two-way communication that he anticipated emerging in art. He foresaw that art would become more and more interactive.

Thus, interactivity in art can be seen as an extension of conceptual art in its heavy engagement with technology. Conceptual art, with its accruement of technology, has moved the emphasis of art from the aesthetics of form towards the aesthetics of the idea or concept, paving the way for interactivity to be seen as part of experiencing the concept of the artwork.

Interactivity in art arrives Originally, interactive media grew out of developments in electronic computer games in the 1970s and 1980s and the technology became so developed that many artists decided to use the game concept of branched-out situations to involve the audience in a different kind of imaginative experience. Jane Veeder, Nancy Burson, and Ed Tannenbaum created different genres of interactive work1.

Net Art was popular in the 1990s, allowing artists to circumvent the traditional dominance of the gallery and museum to deliver an aesthetic experience through the Internet. Net Art is often interactive, participatory and multi-media based. Olia Lialinas My boyfriend

Digital Currents Art in the Electronic Age, p190

came back from the war, and mouchette.org are seminal works in this period.

The open source movement in the 2000s has since led to a burgeoning community of hobbyists and hackers creating their own interactive works that are shared online (on Youtube for example). Open source tools such as PureData for sound, Processing/ Cinder/ openFrameworks for programming, the Android development kit for phones, the Arduino hardware controller platform, and most recently, the Microsoft Kinect sensor (hacking was endorsed with Microsofts approval and support as it would help popularize the Kinect commercially), means that there are now easily accessible and affordable tools for anyone to create interactive artworks.

PART 2 - Features of interactivity in contemporary art

The reference artwork Krzysztof Wodiczkos Tijuana Projection (part of InSite 2000) is one of the best examples of a contemporary interactive artwork that critically fulfills the criteria of what good art should be. Hence I will be using this artwork as a reference subsequently for the rest of this paper.

In this public intervention, women working in the maquiladora2 industry of Tijuana, Mexico wore media technology designed to project their faces onto El Centro Cultural (a spherical building that served as an excellent canvas for the human head) as they spoke

assembly plants in Mexico near the border with the United States

emotionally of incest, police abuse, and work place discrimination in real time. As participants, their speech was courageously offered at great risk to themselves for the purpose of moral and political change.

The art of the interactive narrative The narrative has always been a dominant cultural force. All artworks tell a story. Traditional media such as the novel, television, theatre or cinema usually has a narrative with a classical beginning, middle and end, with the communication being a one-sided affair from the artwork to audience.

However, with new digital media, the storytelling can be entirely morph-able, elasticised and randomised into a non-linear narrative that moves front and back, sideways or up or down. The non-linear relates to our daily experience of the real world, which we can affect in many ways whereas traditional media only allow us to watch on as spectators with no power over how the story plays out. Stories can be structured like games using the interactive grammars of multiple image streams. These kinds of stories do not offer the closure of linear narratives, but place the participant in the centre of the story-telling space3.

Digital Currents Art in the Electronic Age, p193

In Conversation Pieces: The Role of Dialogue in Socially-Engaged Art, Grant Kester writes about art projects that mark the emergence of a body of contemporary art practice concerned with collaborative, and potentially emancipatory forms of dialogue and conversation... In these projects conversation becomes an integral part of the work itself. It is re-framed as an active, generative process that can help us speak and imagine beyond the limits of fixed identities and official discourse.

One of the idealised functions of art is to effect positive broader socio-political change in the world through representation of truth via aesthetic means. Through the audiences experience of the artwork, a new kind of perception about the world emerges. This kind of aesthetic knowledge could then be translated into concrete action that will play a part in shaping reality, of which the artwork is a simulacra of, in its attempt to communicate reality.

The Tijuana Projection allows the narrator, the one who dons the media helmet and whose face is projected onto the building, to tell her personal story of suffering. She is free to say whatever she wants, and whatever she says is a reflection of her own personal real experience. Her story would likely to be in the form of flashbacks that jump back and forth in time according to a causal logic that predicates the events. The audience would not know what to expect, and each womans story is different. This non-linear structure of the narrative mirrors real world experience. The non-linear narrative is a true-to-life simulacra of reality.

Towards an aesthetic of experience of context over form

In New Art in the 60s and 70s: redefining reality, Rorimer writes that The expansion of arts thematic parameters to include issues of context has led to the redefinition of traditional materiality and the notion of the autonomous, transcendent object. It has led to the recognition that a work of art is not, both literally and figuratively speaking, detached from societys interwoven support structures, which encompass the institutional (museological), economic, cultural, political, and historical as well as the purely architectural. Interactivity in art is a continuation of this thrust towards emphasising context over form.

Interactivity in art means that there is a freedom from the aesthetic confines of form towards an aesthetic of experience which involves participation with the artwork. The audience is part of the artwork, which places a demand on the audience to make choices which will alter the artwork in some way. The form does not matter. The artwork could be in the form of environmental architecture, something wearable or as part of a performance process in theatre. This means that there are many possibilities of form for the representation of the artworks content, and the quality of experience overrides the concern of form.

Kester writes of socially-engaged art practitioners:- Parting from the traditions of objectmaking, these artists have adopted a performative, process-based approach. They are context providers rather than content providers, whose works involves the creative orchestration of collaborative encounters and conversations well beyond the institutional boundaries of the gallery or museum. Artists can now focus on shaping the experience of the artwork by defining its context rather than form.


The Tijuana Projection is an artwork whose content is not created by the artist (Wodiczko), but decided by the user of the artwork (the woman narrator who wears the helmet). What Wodiczko has done was to set the context of the artwork, that is, the topic is about the experiences of the women who work in the maquiladora industry. This kind of open-ended content is uncharacteristic of artwork other than an interactive one which allows the user to create their own content. The form is not primary, but is chosen to fit the context, not the other way round. I would also argue that the Tijuana Projection offers a powerful aesthetic experience which will be elaborated later. The point for now is that the aesthetic of experience eclipses the aesthetics of form in this artwork, since the focus of the artwork is not on its form (which is the helmet) but rather, the audiences experience, which is what the audience would remember of the artwork.

The mediation of space Interactive technology can be employed as a means to enable art to become a responsive, real-time system that merges with the environment in a relationship that is better understood as a system of interdependent processes4. This can be especially be effective when the site itself becomes part of the context in site-specific artworks. Interactive art can break down the boundaries between viewer and environment.

Another example of how interactive technologies can bear on the representation and perception of space is in the form of virtual reality environments. Powerful computers are used

Hans Haacke, quoted in Burnhams Systems Esthetics, p35.


to generate visual experience and to track body movements through the use of prosthetic devices such as data gloves, head-mounted displays and body suits which encase the body in fiberoptic cabling. Here, artists have full control over all the objects or all the spatial coordinates and sound in order to create an aesthetic effect. There is full body participation, a shared telecommunications space, multi-sensory feedback, third person participation and unencumbered approaches. There is little critical literature on virtual reality environments at this point in time, and this medium is an exciting unexplored frontier5.

Interactive technologies have the capability to transform public space into a space for art to happen. Surveillance and telepresence is a recurring motif in interactive art, and can bridge or collapse geographical distances. Telepresence, or experience from a distance, can be achieved through the use of web cams and remote controlled robots. Rafael Lozano-Hemmer's Vectorial Elevation (2000) allows Web site visitors to maneuver robotic spotlights from afar, creating patterns in the sky above public plazas. The theme of surveillance in artwork has risen with the sophistication of surveillance technologies such as networked cameras, biometric identification systems, satellite imaging and data mining, as artists raise the issue of institutional surveillance and the invasion of privacy. For example, Marie Sesters ACCESS (2003) casts a beam of light on those who pass beneath its electronic eye, like that of a spotlight on a prisoner. The camera tracks the person according to online commands by a user who can see the victim, and an acoustic beam directs the users voice to the victim that only the victim can hear6.

The Tijuana Projection features interactive technology that transforms the public plaza

5 6

Digital Currents Art in the Electronic Age, p206-208 Digital Currents Art in the Electronic Age, p19-20


in front of the El Centro Cultural into a space for the experience of art. At night, the light projection on the dome facade is a captivating presence, especially when the personal space of the narrator is juxtaposed onto the public space via the live image of the womans face. This offers an intimate experience for the viewer, being immersed in another persons decorporealised emotional space. The audiences response is in the form of a haptic visuality in which the image seen is also felt as a tangible tactile presence through the co-conscious interaction of the senses. The womans presence is perceived as a gestalt whole, with the imagined associations of smell and touch through the mere visual and audio sensation. The site-specific nature of the work also uses the context of the environment as part of the artwork. The site is the Culture Centre of Tijuana, a space associated with the identity of the place through its people, history or customs. The choice of site also means that the audience will consist of members of the local community who are empowered to create change within their own community. The artwork thus mediates space to create a powerful aesthetic of experience.

Summary In part 1, I argued that interactive art is most heavily influenced by conceptual art as a arthistorical antecedent, arising from a heavy engagement with technology. Conceptual art moved the emphasis from the aesthetics of form towards the aesthetic of the artworks concept or idea, made possible by new technological means of art representation. Interactive art also arose from the 1990s onwards from new technological means which were already predicted in the 1970s, coinciding with the rise of the Information Age with the advent of the Internet. In part 2, I argued that contemporary art benefits from interactivity through the engagement of the non-linear narrative which mirrors real world experience; through the


aesthetics of experience of the artworks context over mere form; and finally, through the mediation of space to provide an immersive experience, whereby the boundary of space is transformed between the viewer and the artwork. I used the example artwork of The Tijuana Projection by Wodiczko to illustrate these points.


Conclusion Our daily stream-of-consciousness experience is based on phenomenology. We take in information about the world through our senses. We then interpret the sensory information to create our own meaning according to cultural norms of perception. Embodied knowledge is thus mediated by our senses7. By making the environment and the audience part of the artwork through the duplexity of sign exchange, interactive art engages both our senses and perception simultaneously. This enhances our experience of the artwork.

parahrased from Sensorium: embodied experience, technology and contemporary art


Bibliography Books: 1. New Art in the 60s and 70s: redefining reality. Anne Rorimer. Thames and Hudson. 2004. 2. Digital Currents: Art in the Electronic Age. Margot Lovejoy. Routledge. 2004.

Articles: 1. Conversation Pieces: The Role of Dialogue in Socially-Engaged Art. Grant Kester. 2004. 2. Art in the Information Age: Technology and Conceptual Art. Edward A. Shanken. LEONARDO, Vol. 35, No 4, pp433-438. 2002. 3. Sensorium, embodied experience, technology and contemporary art. Caroline A. Jones. 2006.