By Lauren Anderson
An inquisitive child impulsively reaches toward a piece of artwork that has captured her imagination. Arms stretched out, she leans toward the gilded frame, anticipating touching the sinuous lines on the canvas created by the oil paints of an Impressionist artist. “Stop!” an anxious security guard shouts. The child turns away, as her hope of fully experiencing the art that has mesmerized her disappears. Met with commands of “Don’t touch the art!” from both the security guard and a parent surprised to find that their child has nearly gotten them removed from the museum, the child can only stare at the piece from a distance. Although she is free to admire the piece, she can neither fully interact with it nor fully immerse herself in it.
Just a few blocks away, a visually impaired man touches a portrait designed to be tangible. A smile radiates across his face as he is finally able to immerse himself in art. This man, George Wurtzel, found a sense of identity and association through this interaction. The artist — Andrew Myers, a Laguna Beach based mixed media sculptor — had created a series of “screw paintings” designed specifically to be interacted with, and intended to help people foster a sense of identity when interacting with art.
Not all art can be touched — nor should all art be. However, no hard and fast rule should define the way that people interact with art. Physical engagement integrates the observer and the art, creating an experience that cannot be recreated through mere appreciation from a distance. The ability to touch art makes it accessible to a variety of different communities and individual senses, creating a level of intimacy with the piece beyond what observations can provide. The future of art is interactive: keeping art relevant will require institutions to embrace innovations that integrate art with physicality.
From Static to Interactive
Interactive art has its origins in the political and social movements of the 1950s and 1960s. Steeped in the new politics that flooded the world following World War II, the ‘happenings’ movement created a basis for the future of interactive art. These artists sought to use their events and installations to promote their often-extremist beliefs. The interactivity of performance and installation art proved to be an effective means to communicate the fear, excitement, and hope brought about by the uncertainties of post-war era. Happenings forced spectators to become a part of the work itself. For example, John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s infamous ‘bed-in’ in 1969 invited the public to watch them sit in bed as protest of the Vietnam War. Thus the public was forced to engage with the sentiments that characterized the non-violence and anti-war movements.
The art world continued to shift from emphasizing the object created by the artist to emphasizing the artist’s intentions. Happenings sought to “replace the ‘artist as god’ idea with the ‘artist as facilitator and enabler of creativity,’” according to Ernest Edmonds, a professor of computational art at the Leicester Media School. Professor Edmonds, who was also awarded the ACM SIGGRAPH 2017 Distinguished Artist Award for Lifetime Achievement In Digital Art, told the HPR that interactive art “represents a drive for a more inclusive and, perhaps one might say democratic view of art in society. So interactive art is very political, but not particularly active in the political arena.”
Moving Towards a New Modernism
As the world has become more integrated with technology, the art world has, in turn, been influenced by — and begun to integrate itself — with technology. Using technology as a tool to communicate its themes, interactive art has become increasingly more nuanced and complex. This shift is illustrated by Bill Viola’s installation piece The Crossing (1996). The Crossing manipulates videography to create a pair of video sequences that are simultaneously projected onto a double-sided screen. Both sides begin with a man walking, but diverge into two separate scenes as the film progresses: one in which the man is engulfed by flames, the other by water, until the two forces temper each other into obsolescence. The use of slow motion film in this piece is intended to convey the artist’s belief in the chaos of the modern world and the need to slow time.
Another piece that furthers the manipulation of technologies to create art is Yayoi Kusama’s Infinity Mirrors. On display at The Broad Museum in Los Angeles, the Infinity Mirrors feature two separate installations: The Souls of Millions of Light Years Away (2013), and Longing for Eternity (2017). The two installations are composed of a series of mirrors and LED lights that reflect off each other to create a seemingly limitless atmosphere. The mirrors create an interactive experience by casting the viewer as the subject of an infinite world. In an interview with the HPR, The Broad Museum curator Sarah Loyer noted the difficulties institutions face in housing installation pieces. She stated that “the biggest logistical challenge is trying to provide access to as many people as possible, while also maintaining the desire of the artist for the piece to be experienced a specific way. However, there’s something immersive [about the art] that can allow viewers to lose themselves in the moment.”
Kusama’s works have become iconic pieces within the museum, necessitating advanced tickets and an extended queue. Despite their contemporary popularity, Infinity Mirrors is a part of a longer series of interactive art pieces created by Kusama, who begun making the Infinity Mirrors in the mid-1960s. “There’s this renewed popularity around her work today,” Loyer said, “and I think that positioning the way her work is received today within a much longer history is important.”
Art for the Masses
The notion that interactive art is meant to be tangible and immersive often means that it is interpreted as being democratic, as belonging to the people. Usually site specific, public art is intended to widen the scope of an audience for a particular piece while encouraging people to become integrated with their local surroundings.
After lobbying local officials in New York City for twenty six years, the art duo Christo and Jeanne-Claude showcased their landmark installation The Gates in 2005. Set up as an interactive piece in Central Park, The Gates consisted of a series of over 7500 large, orange fabric panels supported by frames that lined the park’s walkway. Passersby walked through the gates as they made their way through Central Park, creating an escape from the city that surrounded them. The Gates touched on a central theme of public art: how to create art that links human relationships with man-made environments. The installation altered a person’s experience with the park. People ran and walked throughout the manmade environment transformed into a maze of saffron-colored gates. It was an installation made for a person in action, not a passive observer.
This upcoming fall, Harvard University will bring interactivity to its famed Yard. The Harvard University Committee on the Arts has commissioned artist Teresita Fernandez to install her piece Autumn (…Nothing Personal), a site-specific piece in Tercentenary Theater. The installation is intended to be a place for Harvard affiliates and the public to engage in dialogue and community building.
The New Age of Interactive Art
As interactive art continues to develop in a globalized and interconnected world, the locations of pieces are reflective of the society they were created in. According to Edmonds, “Art works are being made that are distributed, one part in Cambridge, another part in New York or Hong Kong. These distributed works use the internet to be fully connected. So the art connects people and places, transforming our understanding of space and relationships.” Art installations are becoming increasingly fluid, transportable to new locations for people in different regions of the world to interact with.
An increasingly common characteristic of 21st century interactive art is its use of post-digital technologies. This post-digital character is manifest in the use of software to manipulate audio and visual effects, amplifying the possible outcomes for a piece. In this form of generative art, the artists established the rule for the device — the computer and its ensuing software — which in turn autonomously creates random results. The artist becomes the tool to initiate creativity, yet does not create the art itself. What kind of an experience does this create for the audience? Where will post-digital technology take interactive art? These questions remain to be answered, but the integration between the two mediums has become increasingly evident. Infrastructure to support emerging post-digital artists is also becoming available, as seen by the creation of Los Angeles County Museum of Art’s Art + Technology Lab. The lab works to provide financial support for up and coming artists who incorporate technology into their work, thereby fostering the medium’s future.
The future of interactive art — although uncertain — remains important. Artists are changing the rules of art from ones that demand passive observance to ones that encourage fully immersive and physical experiences. Art is no longer restricted to subjects that must be passively observed; rather, it is becoming increasingly integrated with our most fundamental human senses. Engaging with a piece of interactive art, the little girl no longer has to worry about the repercussions of touching the object that has captivated her attention. Instead, she has the capacity to touch the art, to become part of it, and to fully immerse herself in it.