The Ambition of Interactivity

written by Zhenzhen Qi
published on BLINK Magazine, 2017 March issue.

So sinful; So good

As an art viewer, I am constantly drawn towards digitally interactive artworks. When I visited the 2017 Whitney Biennale, 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 am often ashamed.  In 2014, fresh out of graduate school, I began working on a commercial project with a few video game developers. My task was to program a starry sky which  coordinates with body motion captured by an Xbox kinect body sensor. Strangely, somewhere deep inside of me, I couldn’t help feeling ashamed. As I waved my hands and enjoyed the spectacle of a whole room of digital stars gravitating to the motion of my body, it was as if in some dark corner, the haunting spirit of Vincent Van Gogh looked down on me with his piercing gaze and howled into the deepest void of my soul, “ou shallow little human, getting devoured by simple satisfaction!”.

As a New Media Art lecturer, I often assign writings from art theorists to my own students, such as Gustav Bachelard’s The Poetics of Space. . I admired Bachelard’s depiction of the poetic object , of how, through a sincere admiration, we can enter into an alternative relationship with everyday objects. Through intimate contact, these objects become the “interface” for their inhabitant to move freely between the “immediate” and the “grandeur”. Compared to what Bachelard described, the “waving your hand to gravitate the sky” digital interactivity feels too immediate, too direct. In his critique on the “fast food” manner of digital interactivity, New 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 a domain of infinity, of the dream-like and the imaginative, doesn’t the simple cause-and-effect operation of digital interactivity feel too purposeful? 

But digital interactivity does relate to and empower its audience, in a manner that seems very real for many of us.. In 2013, when Random International’s immersive environment Rain Room (2012) graced MoMA New York, visitors 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.” Shortly afterwards, 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. Many 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 have fit into their lives with such a natural “click.”.

The position of interactivity in contemporary art making is complex, and in a constant state of flux. On the one side, interactive art enjoys extreme popularity among ordinary viewers. On the other side, it is frequently the object of criticism to some of the most reputable media theorists and art historians. Curators who have been studying remediation- the study of how new media languages emerge from within cultural fabric of existing media – are contemplating with various models(?) of interactivity as well. In 1987, four years after its inception, Prix Ars Electronica, arguably the Academy Awards of media and electronics art started a new award category – interactive art.  The early winners included Sir. Tim Berners-Lee, inventor of the World Wide Web, commonly known as the Web, as well as artist duo Monika Fleischmann and Wolfgang Strauss for their work Home of the Brain (1990/1992), a virtual altar recalling Carl Jung’s analytical psychology theory on the collective unconsciousness. 

This category has traditionally focused on interactivity in digital art, which meant that the form of interactivity itself must have been digital as well. In the twentieth century, the direction of the interactivity award started to change. In 2013, the winning work Pendulum Choir (2010) by Cod.Actintentionally included spatial and human interactivity into the installation design. While machines aided their body orientation, 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 sign in “Interactive Art +” is intended to signal the inclusion of a multiplicity of new and unusual forms of interaction that haven’t been taken into account of the generally understood as 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 curatorial team are also trying to explore the position of digital interactivity within the realm of aesthetic exchange – while at first glance, digital interactivity often seems to offer something new and exciting, but stare at it long enough against the backdrop of psychological,  emotional, and aesthetic interactivity, it can quickly get rigid and, to be completely frank, quite boring. After all, everything we do in relationship to an object could be viewed as interactive. 

Some could argue that, when viewing an unfinished painting, our imagination tends to wander into the negative space on the canvas. In attempting to complete its meaning, we enter into a vast vacuum of infinite meaning which is interactive in the sense of aesthetic wonder. Many of us can also relate to the peculiar experience of losing an old sweater or hat, and the subsequent sadness can extend much more above and beyond a simple object whose function was to shield us from the cold. As a little kid, I was a ferocious collector of rubber erasers. I spent a ridiculous number of hours visiting stationery 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 led me to think about a question. Every form of physical or digital interactivity is the external manifestation of an internal exchange. As someone who appreciates and makes digitally interactive artwork, how do we create and learn to appreciate encounters with objects that allow 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 a digital interactive experiences often begins with new types of bodily sensations – such as Virtual Reality, body motion capture, etc. – but doesn’t end there. Exchanges on the aesthetic level vary on a broad spectrum of  imaginations and emotions. Among the numerous similarities shared between imagination and emotion, the most prominent ones are their indefiniteness and non-objectiveness.  In traditional art forms, the person experiencing the art object maintains an observing role rather than a participating one throughout the entire experience. new media art forms, however, sometimes adopt multiple interaction techniques simultaneously to provoke audiences to surrender their complete consciousness to the dramatic engagement, but admittedly do so in ways that produce insufficient space for the audience to be able to comprehend the exchange at a necessary distance. The participant of an interactive art piece, for example, might describe the experience as “real” rather than “touching,” which is frequently the case with certain type of interactive New Media experiences we encounter. 

The Promise

[some say…] Digital Interactivity eradicates the necessary mental space for speculation and introspection of the artifact at hand. However, its participatory nature allows audiences to be part of a new artistic creation process which is unprecedented.  In the 1990s, Roy Ascott, one of the seminal figures of Cybernetics Art, established the Centre for Advanced Inquiry in the Interactive Arts in the University of Wales, Newport. It was one of the world’s pioneer institutions to establish the study of the convergence between art and technology as an academic discipline. He pointed out 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, Ascott believed that artworks should be responsive to the viewer, instead of being a static object on which [一个表达artistic灵感或点睛这个意思的词?] is bestowed by the artist. Ascott’s teaching inspired a generation of early cybernetic artists who, rather than trying to conceive of objects as tools to help humans achieve a certain aesthetic experience, instead question whether it is 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. How this manifests, in an art installation, is that we are moving away from an ideal, perfect object to an ongoing dialogue among the artist, the 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 Cybernetic Problem

In 1940, the mathematician Norbert Wiener was hired by the British military to improve the possibility of predicting the flight path of enemy aircrafts. Wiener figured out a mathematical modeling technique called the Stochastic Processes, where the errors made in prior predictions become an input parameter in 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 processes. 

In his essay, “Beyond the 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 the broader society. The ratings reflected what TV programmes the public wanted to see, so that producers could adjust their investments to meet the popular demand. This loop eventually allowed for a perfect “machinic equilibrium – a homeostasis” (Holmes, P2), enabled by machines, fulfilled by humans. Holmes said that cybernetic feedback logic also governs politics and economics, 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 rewnew-ness of digital and computational media. An artwork is judged heavily based upon whether 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 should not be what  determines the creative value of the artwork. 

Digital interactivity will not make the audience a 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 ‘,