The Ambition of Digital Interactivity

So sinful; So good

As an audience, I am drawn towards digitally interactive artworks. When I visited the Whitney Biennale 2018, it was as if my legs grew a mind of their own and dragged the rest of me towards the VR films by Jordan Wolfson and kinetic sculptures by Jon Kessler.

However, as an artist who appreciates witty concepts and good laughs, I feel ashamed. In 2014, right after graduate school, I worked on a commercial project with a few video game developers. My task was to program a starry sky that’s captivated by body motion captured by an xbox kinect body sensor. However, somewhere deep inside of me, I feltfeel ashamed. When I waved my hands and enjoyed a whole room of digital stars being gravitated toby the motion of my body, it was as if somewhere, tucked inside a dark corner, the haunted spirit of Vincent Van Gogh looked down with his piercing gaze and howledling into the deepest void of my soul – you shallow little human getting devoured by simple pleasure.
As a New Media Art lecturer, I assign writings from art theories such as Gustav Bachelard’s The Poetics of Aesthetics to my own students. I admired Bachelard depiction of the poetic objects. Through a sincere admiration, we enter an alternative relationship with everyday objects. Through intimacy, these objects become the “interface” for the inhabitant to move freely between the “immediate” and the “grandeur”. Comparing to what Bachelard described, the “wave your hand to gravitate the sky” digital interactivity feels too immediate, too direct. In critiquing the fast food manner of digital interactivity, nNew media theorist Lev Manovich writes “the literal interpretation of interactivity is just the latest example of a larger modern trend to externalize mental life. By asking us to click on one hyperlinked sentence to go to the next, we are asked to mistake the structure of somebody else’s mind for our own”. Indeed, if artistic exchange is meant to provide an entrance to an domain of the infinity, of the dreamy and the imaginative, doesn’t the simple cause-and-effect operation of digital interactivity feels too purposeful?
But digital interactivity does relate to and empower us, in a way that’s very real to many. In 2013, when Random International’s immersive environment Rain Room graced MoMa New York, audiences waited for over five hours in the steamy summer heat to experience it first hand. Ken Johnson wrote in the New York Times, calling it an “entertainment ingenuity”, an epitome of FOMO New York. However, the Rain Room effect quickly globalized. When it reached Yuz Museum in Shanghai, its size increased 50% to 150 square meters, totalling nearly 190,000 viewers. A lot of these viewers don’t have a habit of going to art museums or galleries. They didn’t know why they should spend time to appreciate an object in a white walled room. However, digital interactivity seemed to be such a natural and real part of their lives.

The position of interactivity in contemporary art making is complex, and in a constant state of flux. On the one side, interactive artit enjoysis the extreme popularity of interactive art among ordinary viewers, on the other side, it is the object of criticismze offrom some of the most reputable media theorists and art historians. Curators who have been studying remediation- how new media languages emerge from within cultural fabric of existing media, are contemplating with various representations of interactivity as well. In 1987, four year after its inception, Prix Ars Electronica, arguably the Academy AwardOscar for media and electronics art started a new award category – interactive art. The early winners included Sr. Tim Berners-Lee, inventor of World Wide Web, a hypertext based medium, as well as artist duo behind Home of the Brain, a virtual altar resembling Carl Jung’s analytical psychology theory on the collective unconsciousness.

This category has traditionally focused on interactivity in digital art, which means the form of interactivity itself is digital as well. In the twentieth century, the direction of the interactivity award started to change. In 2013, the winning work “Pendulum Choir” intentionally included spatcial and human interactivity into the installation design. While machine aided the body orientation of the singers, voices reverberated spatially within the performance space to produce the final musical piece.

In 2016, a peculiar plus sign appeared after the Interactive Art category, transforming it into a slightly new category, Interactive Art+. On the Prix Ars Electronica website, it was explained that the PLUS in “Interactive Art +” is intended to signal the new inclusion of a multiplicity of new and unusual forms of interaction that haven’t been taken into account of the generally understood definition of interactive art. The juror explained that they are increasingly looking for something conceptually interesting and socially well thought out, while at the same time demonstrating innovative usage of emerging media technology. Peter Weibel and his curatorialcuritoral team is also trying to explore the position of digital interactivity within the realm of aesthetic exchange – digital interactivity seems to offer something new and exciting, but staring at it long enough against the backdrop of psychological, emotional, and aesthetic interactivity, it can quickly get rigid and frankly quite boring. Everything we do in relationship to an object could be viewed as interactive.
Some could argue that, when viewing an unfinished painting, our imagination waonders into the negative space on the canvas. In attempting to complete its meaning, we enter into a vast space of infinity that’s interactive in the realm of aesthetic wonder. Some of us have also had the peculiar experience of losing an old sweater or hat, and the sadness that ensues that’s goes much more above and beyond a simple object that’s meant to shield us from coldness. As a little kid, I was an ferocious collector of rubber erasers. I spent a ridiculousspent ridiculous amount of hours visiting stationary shops after school and on weekends. Over the course of several years, I had collected erasers that push out from a lipstick container, and a group of sushi shaped erasers that fits perfectly into a miniature sushi box. When I visited my grandmother decades after, my grandmother brought out a whole bag of erasers, most of which had lost their ability to clean. Touching them inside that greasy plastic bag almost brought me to tears. My rubber eraser collection got me started thinking about a question. Every form of physical or digital interactivity is the external manifestation of an internal exchange. As someone who appreciates and makes digital interactive artwork, how do we create and learn to appreciate encounters with objects that allows us to elevate above and beyond the literal, formalistic form of interactivity, and enter an emotional, intimate space of “grandeur”?

The Challenge

In his seminal work “The Psychology of Art”, Lev Vygotsky proposed that perception on the aesthetic level, such as imagination and feeling, must be distinguished from perception on the sensory level, such as taste, odor, and color. “The more attention we pay to a bodily sensation, the clearer it becomes and the better we remember it. But we cannot concentrate our attention on an emotion. As soon as we try, pleasure or displeasure immediately dissipates, and we find ourselves observing some irrelevant sensation or image which we had not intended to observe in the first place.” Similarly, the response to an digital interactive experiences often times begins with new types of bodily sensations such as Virtual Reality, bodily motion, etc., but doesn’t end there. Exchange on aesthetic level are various combinations of imaginations and emotions. Among various similarities shared between imaginations and emotions, the most prominent ones are – they are both indefinite and non-objective. In traditional art forms, the person experiencing the object of art maintains an observer role rather than the participant throughout the entire experience. New Media art forms, sometimes adapting multiple interaction techniques simultaneously to provoke audiences to surrender their consciousness completely to the dramatic engagement, but do so in ways that produces insufficient distance for audience to be able to comprehend the exchange at a necessary distance. The participant of an interactive art piece may describe the experience as real rather than touching, which is often times what happens with certain type of interactive New Media experiences we encounter.

The Promise

Digital Interactivity eradicates the necessary mental space for speculation and introspection of the artifact at hand. However, the participatory engagement allowed audiences to be part of an new artistic creation process that’s unpresidented. In the 1990s, one of the seminal figures of Cybernetics Art, Roy Ascott established the Centre for Advanced Inquiry in the Interactive Arts in University of Wales, Newport. It was one of the world’s pioneer institutions that established the study of the convergence between Art and Technology as an academic disciplines. He pointed to his students that interactive art is tasked with the hope of freeing itself from the “modernist ideal of the perfect object”. Instead of thinking of interactivity as a temporary gimmick, he believed that artwork should be responsive to viewer, instead of being a static object bestowed by the artist. Roy’s teaching inspired a generation of early cybernetics artists who, instead of conceiving of object as tools that’s trying to help humans achieve a certain artistic experience – is it possible to establish a universal language beyond art or technology alone, in order to capture features shared by various systems, be it humanistic, animalistic, or mechanical? Thus, in an art installation, we are moving away from an ideal, perfect object to an ongoing dialogue among the artist, observer and the machine.
Andrew Gordon Speedie Pask was one of the earliest cybernetician, as well as a psychologist and theories, presented “Colloquy of Mobiles” in the seminal exhibition Cybernetic Serendipity (ICA London, 1968). “Colloquy of Mobiles” consisted of a triangular panel with obtuse-angled corners hanging from the ceiling and three rotating fibreglass bodies with organic forms hanging from the triangular panel. These bodies were illuminated from the inside. Two mobiles with inorganic formed parts were attached to an oblong element rotating under the triangular panel. These mobiles were named by Pask as “Males” and the fibreglass bodies as “Females”. In the “Males” photo cells were installed together with elements to send light to mirrors being mounted in openings of the “Females”. The photo cells of the “Males” were able to register the light reflected by the mirrors of the “Females”. In their reactions to each other the rotating elements were capable to memorise and to learn. The visitors could change states of the complex stimulus-response-system by interventions with pocket torches: Then the visitors substituted the “Males” in their activity to send light to the “Females'” mirrors.

The Cybernetics Problem

In 1940 Mathematician Norbert Wiener was hired by the british military to improve the possibilities to predict the flight path of enemy flying objects. Wiener figured out a mathematical modeling technique called Stochastic Processes, where the errors made in prior predictions became an input parameter of the next round of calculation. This self-referential circuit become crucial for the control of information. Inaccurate target tracking is gradually eliminated through continuous data smoothing process.

In Beyond Cybernetics Hypothesis, Brian Holmes argues that the Nielsen ratings system attached to early TV sets in the 1940s was “the Cybernetic Hypothesis at work” in human society.

The ratings reflected what TV programmes the public wanted to see. So, that producers could adjust their investments to meet those popular demand. This loop eventually allowed for a perfect “machinic equilibrium – a homeostasis” (Holmes, P2), enabled by machine, fulfilled by humans. Holmes said that cybernetic feedback logic also governs politics and economics, in which in which people were “transformed by feedback from their economic environment, and vice-versa.”

Today’s world is captivated by the myth around the seemingly perpetual newness of digital and computational media. An artwork is judged heavily based upon if it offers virtual reality, augmented reality, sensory response, graphics renders – some sort of gesture that proves it is distinctively different from earlier medium and practices. However, artistic expressions are meant to create a space for us to contemplate the notion of self, which is in itself a continuous, permeating experience in constant flux. Stemming out of the creative limitations of earlier media, New Media becomes part of an ongoing quest for authentic voices, perceptions, and reflections, while bringing with it unique perspectives. Whether an artist choose to work with traditional or more recent medium alone cannot determine the creative value of the artwork.

Digital interactivity will not make audience the co-creator of the original art piece, to some degree, the sensational attraction prevents the audience from deeply reflecting on the intention of the original creator, however, interactivity does allow participants to become one of the elements of a newly emerged system composed of all the element of existing artwork and the new elements introduced by the participation.


  • Brain Homes, Count to Three – Beyond the Cybernetic Hypothesis
  • Manovich, L. (1996) ‘The Death of Computer Art ‘,

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