Have You Even Been Experienced? The Paradox of Interactive Art

video still

By Daniel Gerwin

Threaded Interface at Grizzly Grizzly

First Among Equals and The Happy Show at the University of Pennsylvania’s Institute of Contemporary Art

Bar Sinister at Tiger Strikes Asteroid


Contemplation is so yesterday.


People who are privy to conversations inside art institutions tell me there’s a lot of talk about audience engagement.  For curators and museum directors seeking to capture the demographic that has grown up with smart phones and powerful computers, it’s no longer enough to offer someone a contemplative experience of a static artwork.  People should now be overtly engaged as participants, so the thinking goes.  The critic Claire Bishop has made the relevant observation that the intense interest in relational aesthetics reflects our “experience economy,” in which goods and services are replaced by “staged personal experiences.” (October 110, 2004)


The institutional emphasis on participation has a particular character, exemplified by exhibits such as Carsten Holler’s solo show at New York’s New Museum, which included a tank you could float in, a merry-go-round you could ride, and a chute you could slide down if you first signed a waiver (and waited in line for an hour).  If you liked that show, visit City Museum in Saint Louis – it’ll knock you out.


Here in Philadelphia, Grizzly Grizzly presents Threaded Interface, a video piece by Annica Cuppetelli and Crisotbal Mendoza, in which your activity triggers complex movements of digital, fiber-like lines projected on the wall.  In First Among Equals at the ICA, the gallery collective Extra Extra, John Transue, and Laura Nejman together present work based on the same principle: your physical action controls digital movement in a virtual environment.  Upstairs at the ICA, in Stefan Sagmeister’s expansive exhibit The Happy Show, you can turn on complicated neon signs by riding a bike (and become a tableau vivant in the process), activate colorfully rippling lights by smiling at a sensor, or activate a spider-web video animation.  Sagmeister’s three works are part of a much larger, interconnected experience from which they cannot truly be separated, but hat being said, these particular pieces share an explicitly participatory orientation with the work at Grizzly Grizzly and First Among Equals, and all momentarily captured my attention but had little staying power.


Is it possible that interactive technologies paradoxically encourage us to slip into a more passive state?  This question has been explored by movies such as Idiocracy and Wall-E, which posit a dystopian future in which we are reduced to mindless blobs made indolent by constant stimulation.  It’s too soon to know how interactive technology will develop as art; new machines are often met with unfounded fears, the typewriter bemoans the computer. Yet it seems clear that in some cases the idea of participation is being reified, resulting in superficiality.  Art that is interactive and engaging in the concrete sense may offer nothing more than an amusement park experience, a diversion that challenges neither mind nor body.


In contrast to the engulfing stimuli of Sagmeister’s Happy Show, it’s interesting to note two other current offerings in Philadelphia.  The first, Michael Macfeat’s exhibit at Tiger Strikes Asteroid, Bar Sinister, includes a painting bearing the following words from Samuel Beckett: “To restore silence is the role of objects.”  (Sagmeister is probably much happier than Beckett ever was.)  Beckett points to the active power of the inanimate. Things exist dynamically in the world and we interact with them.   Richard Serra’s work hinges on this kind of call-and-response: as I walk along one of Serra’s multi-ton sculptures, it presses upon me, altering my physical and emotional balance with its torque and overwhelming mass.


The Band of the Family of the Bell, the April show at Marginal Utility by Ronnie Bass, Carmel Michaeli, and Gilad Ratman, offers a second example of the mysteries of engagement.  The show is essentially composed of video and sound, neither of which will be altered by anything you do short of wrecking the place.  I found a seat and took in the full length of the videos; I was completely passive by all outward appearances, but I felt compelled and very much engaged.   Bass, Michaeli, and Ratman have produced an odd, fascinating work that I’m still digesting and will return to experience again.  Isn’t that participation?


In art as in all things, the wheel is always turning.  For a time, minimalism crowded out everything else, until we realized something was missing, which initially seemed to be neo-expressionism.  It’s just a matter of time until technologies like sophisticated motion sensors will be less astonishing; the current view of participation will probably give way. It’s not that the latest interactive technologies can’t be powerful artistic media, it’s just that interaction made concrete is of little value by itself.


Once participation, interaction, and engagement are considered abstractly, they turn out to be fundamental across the board. Coursing through our minds and bodies, art inspires active engagement.  We participate by stepping outside our usual habits of perception and thought, but this is no easy task, and it involves much more than waving a limb to alter a projection.


Daniel Gerwin is a painter living in Philadelphia, a current CFEVA Fellow, and a Lecturer at The University of the Arts.