Sunday, December 9, 2007

Artists and interactivity: Fun or funambulist? Regina Cornwell

In an essay first published four years ago, I expressed my concern about how interactive works by artists seem to come closer and closer to video games, encouraged by our postmodern climate.1 Contemporary art had already begun to move toward fun and entertainment, with the tacit consent of the art community. The interactive computer work aspiring toward art, yet allied to computer games, was seeking respectability and a home, asking to be let in the doors of museums and galleries. Yet, even more than the rest of contemporary art, it seemed a more obvious, even blatant gamester and funster, and often with fewer pretensions, whose very high-tech paraphernalia, could bewilder, overwhelm, and even alter the institutions it sought to woo and infiltrate.

The situation today?

Susan Sontag provides the perfect catalyst for a critical look. Interviewed about her work as a novelist, she spoke of what she called her project: " produce food for the mind, for the senses, for the heart. To keep language alive. To keep alive the idea of seriousness. You have to be a member of a capitalist society in the late 20th century to understand that seriousness itself could be in question."2

Pit this against "fun" which, three decades ago meant harmless and innocent pleasure and enjoyment, but now moves through our culture like a non-indigenous weed, strangling the native flora. (Substitute intelligence for flora, and we have reduced the native intelligence needed for seriousness).

I am suggesting that in the USA in the last four years, fun has enlarged its domain, even further stamping out seriousness where and when it can. Education is one place. Here "edutainment" is produced in the form of computer software. Looking at the educational market, The New York Times posed a telling question in its business section recently: "What could it mean when the master salesman of Sonic the Hedgehog [Thomas Kalinske, former president of Sega of America] takes the top job at a company set up to create and buy companies that sell educational technology?"3

Publishing is another. Amid lamentations of a poor summer for book sales, Michael Naumann, new CEO of Henry Holt and Co., made an oddly revealing remark: "'I don't think that the readership is shrinking....There was a time when Le Carré was new or Márquez was new. Where are the Hemingways? What can you say when a No. 1 book is by a basketball player?'"4

Disneyfication is a big part of the picture. Even the makers of Mickey, Minnie, and more recently Pocahontas and The Hunchback of Notre Dame have bought their way into New York City to participate in a sanitized fun-filled Forty-Second Street, a far cry from the sleaze-filled days, now only the theme of "Nostalgia de la boue."5 Television's tendency to make dramas and soap operas out of news events and to trivialize and sentimentalize and cheapen these and others, overburdens us with examples in a world where fun and market-share are bedfellows.

The art world has largely acquiesced to the general postmodern cultural agreement that "lite and eze" is preferred, when not best. More and more, galleries and museums have extended themselves to every manner of installation and spatial transformation, making in recent years the spadework of Marcel Duchamp look very foreign, quite tame at best, rent from its history and raison d'etre. It is difficult not to see certain relatively recent museum and gallery activities as twisted forms of fun aimed to please -- not disturb or bother or displease or cause a middle class audience to think -- or else art world versions of identity searches where solipsism seems to rein.

In an art world where clever and of-the-moment novelty, pastiche, a back bend to incorporate the mundane are part of the fun offering, the serious has very little, if any, room. This is the situation as I see it today, four years after my earlier ruminations. Does interactive work, enforced by the association with the computer game and because it requires some kind of rapport with audiences, fall into a trap and simply aid the cultural climate of fun, somehow automatically operating against seriousness?

In the New York 1995-96 season, interactivity found some presence in three commercial galleries, a public art show, the Guggenheim Museum in SoHo, and even Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts, while a number of New York-based institutions have sites on the World Wide Web where artists can display their wares. The exhibitions included numerous monitors with mouse or joy stick companions with predictable scenarios modeled after games, media critiques, pick and choose menus, screen savers, surveillance themes, permutations on design exercises, as well as a virtual reality piece.6

Collectively, the exhibitions summarize what is wrong with this picture. Fun again is even more pertinent: especially when we realize that it seems derived from the Middle English, meaning "to trick." Indeed, one felt tricked, looking at the Guggenheim Museum SoHo with Mediascape (14 June - 15 September 1996) as well as with The Brain Opera, (23 July - 3 August), part of Lincoln Center Festival 96. Both are a measure of the serious problems involved with making and exhibiting such work.

After five months the Guggenheim Museum SoHo reopened its doors with Mediascape, aided by a very generous (amount undisclosed) infusion of funding from Deutsche Telekom for renovation and expansion of its building, as well as for support for this and future art and technology exhibitions.7 As part of the company's public relations strategy in its bid for a share of the American telecommunications market, its infusion was apparently large enough to move the museum to name four of its gallery spaces The Deutsche Telekom Galleries, prompting one reviewer to note that this marks the first time galleries in a major New York art museum have been dedicated to corporate donors.8

This startling observation makes one hesitate and ponder very carefully Guggenheim director Thomas Krens' statement: "The only way museums can consistently develop and present multimedia and high-technology exhibitions is through collaborations with organizations like Deutsche Telekom which have a broad range of resources and expertise."9 Mediascape, also represented the first in a program of cooperative efforts between the Guggenheim and ZKM (Zentrum Für Kunst und Medientechnologie/Center for Art and Media) in Karlsruhe, Germany, with 10 of the 14 works by 10 artists, either owned or produced by the latter. Before the exhibition's opening, speculations abounded on just how state of the art and cutting edge Mediascape might be. Cutting edge, it certainly was not. Finally the show was billed as "comprehensive" of new and existing technologies. Most were video installations, leaving only three interactive pieces, one each by Jeffrey Shaw, Bill Seaman, and Toshio Iwai.

In terms of comprehensiveness, the choices are puzzling. Why a 1969-70 Nauman but not an early Paik? And were there more video installations than interactive computer works created by artists included because they have a longer history? As there were so few interactive works, one still has to ask, why these? There are certainly historical reasons for including Shaw's Legible City, 1988-91. Now nearly a decade old in the short span of artists' involvement with interactivity, Shaw's work, with its use of a bicycle as interface, shunned the standard computer interfaces, striking at the dreaded mind/body split so popular a topic in academic discussions about technology. Can we find historical niches for the other two? It goes without saying that Iwai's Piano -- As Image Media, 1995 pleases crowds of all ages. But instead of this, wouldn't one of his computerized para-cinematic devices have made a significant and thoughtful statement provoking connections between cinema and the computer while still pleasing a diverse audience? With a random word selector at the heart of his Passage Sets/One Pulls Pivots at the Tip of the Tongue, 1994-95, Seaman is engaged with language, in combination with still and moving imagery and sound, for a play with audio-visual poetry. In thinking about popular culture and the struggles of the early cinema, historically one could make an analogy between Seaman's poetic concerns in using the computer today and the way early film borrowed from the novel and 19th century melodrama to give it respectability and the status of art. While I have suggested historical context here in terms of the three artists working with interactivity, Mediascape lacked both history and any sense of context. Perhaps certain works were not owned by ZKM, the partner institution for the show, and the institutional collector/producer of note in this field. Or perhaps comprehensiveness simply meant completeness or thoroughness in terms of ZKM's role.

One felt tricked, let down by Mediascape. Trickery aside, much more significantly, in fact, it was the kind of exhibit that ultimately does more harm than good. Reviewers assigned to cover this type of show may be totally indisposed to such work, moreover even if they are favorably inclined, they may not have enough knowledge to understand the difference between video works and those driven by a computer in which the computer plays an active part in the display process. Looking at computer-driven interactive projects as just an extension of video, profoundly misunderstands the shift which takes place and the radical differences between the two. Aimed at neither substance nor ideas, ruled by arbitrariness and spectacle, devoid of history and context, an exhibit like Mediascape only confuses issues, and those predisposed to dislike it in the first place are only confirmed in their prejudices.

Although Tod Machover's Brain Opera is called an interactive musical event, I include it here because it is also billed as a highly interactive artistic event, has serious intellectual goals and ambitions, and was given its world premiere at another prime New York cultural showcase, Lincoln Center. It premiered in Europe at Ars Electronica in Linz, Austria, in September 1996, and is slated for venues in South America and the Far East. Brain Opera was produced at the MIT Media Lab with a quoted cost of over $4.5 million from multi-national co-producing sources. To begin, the audience wanders through the visual "Part I: Mind Forest" and plays at hyper-instruments, and some of their input is programmed into a performance of Brain Opera which follows. "We are empowering people to make music," I overheard a Brain Opera staff guide [read: enabler] say as she encouraged her questioner to touch and play in the "Mind Forest" -- also referred to in the program notes as "the giant musical brain." A cliché runs rampant among certain computer types, namely, the belief that to make art involving the computer they must compensate for the machine's logic and mathematics by creating organic forms. Yet it is precisely this which drives Brain Opera. The fun house biomorphism only charges up the already New Age atmosphere. The very elements which are supposed to enrich a diverse public's involvement -- the touch, wave, feel, shout, press interactivity -- are precisely what feed into its low and often already simplistic expectation of what interactivity is. [One music reviewer summed it up: "As a whole, Brain Opera is an early lapse of taste in the enlightened Lincoln Center Festival programming."10 That applies especially to its interactive visual side.] Its intellectual seriousness got lost in the hyper-gear and turned into just more fun.


Pausing a moment, and looking back, there are valuable lessons to be absorbed and applied by those involved with interactive art, and the teacher is a surprising one. It is Minimal Art of the 1960s because of its uses of technology and the paradoxes resulting.

The ways in which Minimalism eschewed the emphasis on the artist's hand, the work as one of a kind and therefore unique, are now history. Moving away from the autonomy of the art work, especially the preciousness with which modernist painting was being considered, it favored the series and the serial work. Artists gave buyers plans as a condition of purchase of a piece which could later be refabricated. Fiberglass, aluminum, styrofoam, and other new industrial materials replaced wood, bronze and other tried and true ones. The monumental scale, the industrial look, the theatricality all created shifts in how viewers approached such work. Minimalism involved, as Robert Morris described it, taking relationships "out of the work" to "make them a function of space, light, and the viewer's field of vision.'"11 At the same time that technology allowed Minimalism to critique, dissect and even discard certain traditions, it also and finally brought itself and its work closer to corporate culture, to mass production, and to consumerism.12

If the contradictions are apparent with Minimalism and its uses of industrial technologies, they are blindingly obvious with interactivity and the computer and the pursuit of a place in the art world. Yet, they are not being played through or acted out to any authentic extend as real cultural and economic contradictions the way they were with Minimalism.

The first thing to notice is that art and culture pause long over computer games and are seduced by them. But the computer owes so much of its development to the military -- the inspiration and also sources for large percentages of games -- at the same time the computer became a perfect fit for business, which, as it developed historically, picked up new methods for organizing and more machines with which to do so, the computer the most useful yet.13 If we shift from the fun of games with their overt or covert messages about power, speed, command and control to those same messages delivered for expediency and with urgency by the military and to the efficiency of the office work place and the various heritages in consumer culture, are art and culture ready to squarely face this complex mosaic? Such art must confront both the historical contradictions of its technology's family history and the history of art, while asking questions about what the computer really is, what computer interactivity as art actually is and may become, and what it can do. Can it be programmed to perform as the black sheep?

These crucial contradictions are ignored when art institutions exhibit what is clearly entertainment. Often such entertainment masquerades as critique of games, popular culture, and consumerism, but fails, and simply looks like a poor substitute for what it was intended to take to task.

There are several paths. Yes, art can push aside the computer as much as possible, and suffer the risk of losing touch with culture and becoming marginalized and irrelevant. Or, artists and the art world can continue to see no difference between the computer and tradition-bound media. But if the computer is treated merely like an easier video display or a faster way to create paintings or its interactivity is viewed as a new version of Pavlovian response through the joystick or mouse, then art and culture have misunderstood both the computer and interactivity. In this script, the computer functions as a dumb tool to emulate high art or to move itself further and further to the everyday, to fun, to eradicate its differences from both entertainment and from everyday life. It is this last that we see all too frequently today.

But, isn't it reasonable to expect that the computer will bring about major changes in the ways that art is thought about, made, and experienced? Fine pictures, clever interfaces, don't address the dynamics and complexity of the computer. Interactivity offers the possibility for a new art paradigm. But that can only happen when artists stop and deal with the computer as something other than just an extension of another medium and more than an automobile in automatic drive. Yes, it can be extraordinarily expensive to work with. Yes, it isn't about making unique objects, so that, more than Minimal Art, it forces questions.

Concerning the museum, Rosalind Krauss proposes a dismal answer for the future coming out of her analysis of Minimalism:

And it also does not stretch the imagination too much to realize that this industrialized museum will have much more in common with other industrialized areas of leisure -- Disneyland say -- than it will with the older, preindustrial museum. Thus it will be dealing with mass markets, rather than art markets, and with simulacral experience rather than aesthetic immediacy.14

And she is far from addressing computer-related work here. We see her prediction already unfolding in many art museums. So how and where can this new kind of art be exhibited to engage with the contradictions and not simply acquiesce as the "lite and eze" fun on display?

As for artists, must they be thought of and begin to think of themselves in a different way? How will artists make a living in the expensive economy of such work where there are no longer originals? Who will begin such a dialogue, asking questions, looking at these truly complex issues?

Searching for answers means real changes in the rules of the games. Given the way the art world today holds on to the ordinary, even the mediocre, Duchamp offers a counter-model for artists in the field of interactivity. He was the consummate game player of chess and art for whom time and concentration are keys. Duchamp took time in his art making and demanded amply of the viewers' time in experiencing so much of his work. Time, duration, complexity, concentration are allies of seriousness. To investigate what the computer is and why it is different, to act on these differences, and to face the contradictions inherent in embracing the computer in our culture, while speaking to that culture, is one way of addressing art, ideas and seriousness in the late 20th century. Duchamp was a funambulist -- a tightrope walker -- balancing language and imagery full of puns and irony, a player and a worker. Artists in the interactive field must learn to master the tightrope which computer technology dares them to do in a fun-filled and contentious world in order to keep seriousness alive.

Footnotes (click on number to go back to place in the text)

1. 'Interactive Art and the Video Game: Separating the Siblings' in Videonale 5, Bonner Kunstverein, 1992, pp. 32-44. (Exhibition catalogue. In English with German translation.) Reprinted in Camerawork, Spring/Summer 1993, pp. 10- 13.

2. Leslie Gans, 'Susan Sontag Finds Romance'in The New York Times Magazine, 2 August 1992, p.43. I used this quotation in my earlier article, 'Interactive Art and the Video Game.'

3. Denise Caruso, Technology'in The New York Times, 29 July 1996, p.D5.

4. Doreen Carvajal, 'The Summer of No Reading' in The New York Times, 1 August 1996, p.D7.

5. Herbert Muschamp, 'Nostalgia Tripping in Times Square' The New York Times, Sunday Arts and Leisure, 25 August 1996, p.H36. On the same page, Muschamp writes: 'Where have they gone, the chicken hawks and stiletto knife displays, the peep show shills, pickpockets, coke heads, wines, pimps and tramps? We had a world class gutter here. Must we trade it in for a shopping strip of chain retail outlets?' And further. 'The transformation of Times Square from a notorious vice zone into a year-round 'Babes in Toyland' is shocking, no doubt intentionally so. What better way to signal that the clean-up of the square, Pursued in vain for so many years, is finally coming to fruition? But the pre- Freudian view of childhood now on view is less than fully urban.'

6. For a discussion on an exhibition held last spring at Postmasters Gallery, New York, called Can You Digit?, with a mention of an autumn 1995 show at the Ricco/Maresca Gallery; see my 'Can you Digit?' online at TalkBack!, Issue no.2, located at: Also I mention a public art exhibition here in my catalogue essay. It was Art in the Anchorage, held summer 1996. I refer to it here because it involved electronic forms exclusively, including video and work with computers, though only one artist used interactivity.

7. The Italian Electric Company, ENEL, ("the second largest power company in the world for power installed and the third largest in terms of electric power billings" according to its press release, while Deutsche Telekom is "Europe's largest telecommunications company and the third-largest carrier in the world," according to its release. )also opened two modest but "striking" permanent gallery spaces, on the ground floor of the Guggenheim, one housing a VR gallery with ENEL's own productions about art and architecture to be experienced in cybergear, the other, the ENEL Electronic Reading Room equipped with "CD-ROM stations." Each space represents a Roman designer's idea of what high tech should look like; somehow they got crossed between a corporate tradeshow floor and Buck Rogers ready to strike. ENEL, in collaboration with the Guggenheim, will produce CD-ROM's about exhibits and the collection as well supporting artists working in areas of new technology. One CD-ROM on the 1994 exhibition, The Italian Metamorphosis, 1943-1968, was already made in collaboration with ENEL.

8. Roberta Smith, 'Art Review. A Museum's Metamorphosis: The Virtual Arcade' in The New York Times, 18 June 1996, p.C15.

9. Quoted from a joint press release of the Guggenheim Museum and Deutsche Telekom, 10 April 1996, no. 739, pp.1-2.

10. Alex Ross, 'Festival Review/Music Composers Wanted, No Experience Needed', in The New York Times, 25 July 1996, p.Cl6.

11. From 'Notes on Sculpture', in Gregory Battcock (ed.), Minimal Art, Dutton, New York, 1968, quoted in Rosalind Krauss, 'The Cultural Logic of the Late Capitalist Museum' in October, no.54 (Fall, 1990), p.8.

12. See Krauss' very helpful discussion of the museum and Minimalism in the issue of October cited above which I use here. And, while there is no room for discussion here, as she points out, Minimalism also quite unintentionally helped prepare the way for the postmodern fragmentation of the subject. (p. 12)

13. See Steven Lobar, InfoCulture: The Smithsonian Book of Information Age Inventions, Houghton Mifflin Co., Boston, 1993. See the chapter called 'Information Before Computers', pp.285-309, for a discussion of the development of business methodologies and machines leading up to the computer and how predisposed business was to it.

14. Krauss, Ibid pp.16-17.

copyright 1996 Regina Cornwell and Barbican Art Gallery. Do not reproduce without permission.

Originally published in the book: Brown, Carol and Beryl Graham (Eds.) (1996) Serious Games. London: Barbican Art Gallery/Tyne and Wear Museums. ISBN: 0 946372 35 7

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