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Pressing buttons

A short provocation on the use of the term “interactivity” within art and culture

Author: Peter J. Evans

In September last year, I found myself at the Arnolfini in Bristol whilst driving down to Stream festival, held within the buildings which used to be Dartington College of Arts. Dartington was my old university, where radical pedagogy and interdisciplinary working were part of the fabric of the institution; which gives some context to the following thoughts and viewpoints.

The outside structure of the Arnolfini sits on the edge of the waterfront; iconic, a cultural presence within the city. Internally though it is in the midst of change and reorganisation, linking more deeply with local academic structures, much like the BALTIC in Gateshead (linked with Northumbria University) and MIMA in Middlesborough (now part of Teeside University). Something could be said here about the need for cultural institutions to form partnerships to survive in an age of austerity, but that’s a whole other strand of thought.

Back to Bristol then, and the walls of the Arnolfini reception space where there were numerous copies of collective ideas for a new manifesto of what the vision and aspirations for such a cultural institution should be. One point caught my eye – “there should be at least one interactive work per exhibition” – as I wondered how they were defining the term interactive. In the age of apps and interfaces, physical computing and user journeys, the word has become almost synonymous with a concept of use that relies on a physical act – swipe left, or right, pinch to zoom, push to activate, break a sensor beam – or,, to more precisely describe it, a movement which is then recorded and translated. For example, if you press a button on an exhibit which then turns on or moves, your physical action has been translated via a mechanical action into an electrical signal, and the software/hardware behind the scenes reacts to that input within its programmed parameters. I have no issue with this as a tool for use in creating works and experiences, but I do wonder if by this definition we miss the interactive nature of works where the movement towards, and within its content is more mental than physical, harder to quantify, more qualitative. Micheal Craig Martin’s An oak tree springs to mind as an example as you can’t help but end up conceptually considering its idea. Is mental contemplation any less of an interaction than a physical act? I’m not suggesting here that either inherently holds more value, or even that they don’t often form a coherent whole. However, it’s important to query where the urge to make culture more physically and mechanically interactive comes from and whether we are missing the point if we focus solely on the form rather than the content.

The Megaphone, YesYesNo, 2012

“For the GLOW festival in Eindhoven, we created an oversize megaphone that allows you to shout at a building across the street and paint it. We had several scenes that focused on writing and text – a swirling pile of papers that your voice levitates, an abstract typeface and individual letterforms.”

An Oak Tree, Michael Craig Martin, 1973

One possibility is that the structure of late capitalist society, with its focus on the self, pushes us to become authors of content rather than consumers of it. Differing views abound around the use of individuals as content creators, especially on online platforms. Opinion is sometimes viewed to be as valid as a fact if it holds the same quantitative metrics, at least in purely programmatic terms. Of course, art production doesn’t have the same issues as Facebook’s feed algorithm. However, the societal context feeds into ideas of value and the use of language, so it’s relevant here.

On an institutional level, by inviting an audience to be physically involved in a work, any mechanical interaction concurrently generates a data stream which can then be used to quantitatively show that the viewer has engaged directly with the material. This data might not be stored, but it’s obvious to see that it could have its uses for institutions needing to prove their worth to funding bodies. In documentation of such works, it’s far easier to display to funding bodies or the public that people were involved in the “creation” of the work. It’s far harder to show and record that a viewer has created a powerful mental memory of a painting, or experienced an emotional response to a performance. In recent online applications for awards and commissions from organisations and institutions, I’ve seen an increasing rise of requests or “we are interested in” statements for works that have an element of interactivity using digital technology, and I wonder why that may be. In my thinking, all works are interactive, it’s simply that the type of exchange is different between the physical and mental commitment a viewer gives to the experience of a work. Some of the best digital works I’ve seen or experienced – such as Protomusic #1 (pictured below) – have no physical or content manipulation possibilities, so the two aren’t immutably intertwined.

In many purported interactions, the viewer is simply flicking a programmatic switch or moving through a dictated route. This could of course be brilliant work, but its level of authorship in terms of input from the viewer I would argue is no different than the decision to strap into a rollercoaster. In others, although in the literature surrounding a work the viewer is spoken about as having agency, it’s very hard to ascertain how what you might be doing is influencing what you are seeing. I would argue that if as an artist you are making something truly for the audience to create with you then you are designing tools for composition and not content itself. Make the pen, brush, object based programming environment, hardware, software, for a creative community to manipulate, use, break, and explore, be delighted in what people do with it. If not, and you’re making or curating material for an audience to be with and experience, give credence to the strength of them simply




The TATE, on its website, has a glossary of “Art Terms”. Within this, for “Interactive Art” it states, “Interactive art describes art that relies on the participation of a spectator”. I don’t mean to be facetious, but I can’t think of a single work of art ever created which does not fit that terminology. Of course there will be one, a work made only to be placed in room, with locked doors, never mentioned or known, its purpose to speak of perfect solitude and unknownness. However, outside of that work whose meaning will be destroyed if it’s ever located, in the life of creative acts we can bear witness to: simply being present is participating in that exact moment of space/time continuum and we should value that as much, if not more than, a technological translation of a material movement.

A physical interaction does not make a work more valuable, more powerful unless it means something, even if the meaning is hard to quantify. And perhaps this is what I’m interested in trying to say here, that play and feeling directly involved in a work has its place, has meaning, has currency, but that should not overshadow the fact that stillness and contemplation have their place too.


Article lead image: Fur Immer, 2010, Peter J. Evans