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Participation and Interaction/Interactivity

Participation and Interaction/Interactivity

by Hallur Þór Halldórsson — last modified Aug 30, 2013 04:37 PM
With Netfilmmakers' upcoming exhibition, BUGS, we will tread a ground that is entirely new for us, introducing artwork that is produced specifically for the iPad. Inevitably this leads to a query into interactivity in contemporary art, as the three pieces that will be exhibited (as well as downloadable from the Apple iStore), KRYB/CREEPS, METOO and MIMICS, all rely on different levels of interactivity to engage the audience, and the relationship between interactivity and participation.
Posted by Hallur Þór Halldórsson at Aug 30, 2013 10:50 AM | | Add comment

The distinction between participation and interaction, or interactivity, in art, is a somewhat debated issue. Various approaches deliver different conclusions and definitions, obviously, but, although there is no strict consensus on the absolute meaning of the two terms, people generally seem to agree on their relation, and then either think it is pretty much the same, or that the former indicates a more radical approach to artistic engagement than the latter.


A brief internet research reveals that people often seem to understand interactivity as a more socially passive version of participation, i.e. that participation differs from interactivity in that it involves people more radically, and eventually has a better chance of leaving a trail of itself behind; to make a difference.

I think the major problem revolves around the constant attempt to define things from different perspectives and premises. If we take a simple word definition, then the idea of interaction - meaning a reciprocal activity between either two subjects, or in case of interactive art, a subject and a computer - might entail some kind of a participation - referring to an action that results in the inclusion of the subject to a larger group - but doesn't necessitate it.

However, Participatory Art, as a term, is an attempt to categorize the more relational or inclusive kind of art, referring to the inclusion of the audience, or the recipient of the artwork (if we can still call the audience recipients in participatory art), rather then becoming a part of a larger whole or a group. Interactive Art, similarly, is by the very nature of the term interactivity, a very inclusive kind of art, as it engages the audience in order to activate the artwork. Until some form of interactivity is reached, the value of the artwork is minimal. It is merely in this engagement that any kind of value is generated (and I'm not talking about the market value of the piece).

Obviously, this definition applies only to Interactive, and more generally, Participatory Art, but not all digitally created, produced or generated art, and most certainly not all contemporary art. But with the advent of the internet and subsequently Web 2.0, the idea of interactivity has become synonymous with the digital world in contemporary speech, to some extent. Although originally, the idea of interaction has nothing to do with computers, the interaction between a human subject and a computer, has become the contemporary definition of the tern interactivity. Of course, the human-computer interaction is an extremely relevant approach to interaction, with the increased ubiquity of communication devices of all shapes and sizes, ranging from computers and mobile devices, to cars and even refrigerators and coffee machines that are capable of logging on to the internet and perform various internet-based tasks. But it shouldn't be considered the sole manifestation of the digital in contemporary art. Nor should interactivity be understood as the only relevant aspect of art production today. In some cases, the use of interactivity shouldn't be considered relevant at all.

A brief internet research reveals that people often seem to understand interactivity as a more socially passive version of participation, i.e. that participation differs from interactivity in that it involves people more radically, and eventually has a better chance of leaving a trail of itself behind; to make a difference. This might be due to the fact that interactive artworks usually consist of a single subject interacting with a computer (although today, the computer would most likely be connected to the internet and the result of the interaction would be recorded and documented on the web), while participation art often aims to involve the audience in group action. Perhaps this leaves interactivity more attached to entertainment, and perhaps that would be because a screen seems to demand some form of entertainment for the product (and by product I am trying to refer to all products of the dreaded culture industry – be it art, design or mere entertainment). Granted the fact that Interactive Art has left the restrains of the screen behind some time ago, we still seem to associate interactivity with computers, and more generally, the personal computer, PC's (including the Apple Macintosh personal computers), with the separation of computer, screen, keyboard and mouse.

This struck me when we interviewed Thomas Ryder, the creator of MIMICS the other day, and I asked him for his views on interactivity in contemporary art. After some thought he replied - and I am paraphrasing a little bit - that when it's well done it's good, but poorly executed interactivity is nothing but annoying. Of course interactivity can be useful, can add something to the overall experience, but sometimes it doesn't, and then it renders itself unnecessary to the point that it becomes annoying. And of course he is right. There is a rather annoying tendency in contemporary art, to add an unnecessary level of interactivity to an artwork just for the sake of including the participatory or interactive element. And I wonder why that is?

One attempt at an answer might be to consider the value of entertainment in art today. Has art been so tainted by the entertainment industry that contemporary artists don't see the value of what Ryder called "a boring" work of art. Bear in mind that Ryder is a game designer by profession, and was discussing "art games" rather then artworks, in general. However, the inevitable trail of thought leads to the questioning of art: Must art, today, be entertaining to have a value, to have the power to influence or inspire? Or is it simply that Art, with a capital A, must always be boring, and will therefore always be an elitist act?

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