Bad interactivity

Here are some more quotes about interactivity and participatory art. I feel the need to respond to them because they’re relevant to my project and my developing thoughts. As much as anything I think they throw a bit of light on how I see interactivity in the context of my project.

The following three quotes are from ‘Internet Art’ by Julian Stallabrass

Page 61

In an interview with Davis, Tilam Baumgärtel asked whether the sentence (This referring to The world’s first collaborative sentence by Douglas Davis) was truly interactive or was rather just another kind of form filling, common on the Net. That question acutely raised the issue of whether contributors to such works are any more than sociological specimens who supply data for the artist.

In principle, interaction holds out great cultural and social benefits. It should empower users, encourage cultural activity, rather than mere spectating, and make art more responsive to its audience, opening art’s exclusive and (for many) intimidating spaces and discourse to the breezes of inclusiveness and democracy. Yet there appears to be a fundamental problem with interactivity as it has actually developed in Internet art, which is inscribed in the suspicions of many online artists about the term, and in the surprisingly impoverished character of interactivity that many of their works offer. Alexei Shulgin articulated common doubts among artists about the much vaunted term:

'I don’t believe in interactivity, because I think interactivity is a very simple and obvious way to manipulate people. Because what happens with so called interactive art is that if an artist proposes an interactive piece of art, they always declare: ‘Oh, it’s very democratic! Participate! Create your own world! Click on the button and you are as much the author of the piece as I am’ But it’s never true. There is always the author with his name and his career behind it, and he just seduces people to click buttons in his name.'

Shulgin claims that his own response, to organise a competition for ‘form art’ with a prize, was more honest: people still worked for him but at least he paid them something.

This strikes me as quite a narrow view of online participation. Saying that the audience are merely giving the artist sociological data seems unnecessarily unkind to me. So what if they are? If the experience of doing that is engaging then what’s the problem?

Alexei Shulgin’s criticism of interactivity is essentially that it’s not what it purports to be. Proponents for interactivity claim that you can define the parameters of the experience but you can’t. I can’t help but think this is irrelevant. What if someone doesn’t make any such claim of democracy for their work? Does his point still make any sense? Asking for some input from your audience is simply offering your audience another way of engaging with the work.

Saying that, of course there’s no way the audience will ever be ‘as much the author of the piece as I am’ even if I ask them to do whatever they want in front of a camera and then call the piece ‘Fill your boots’ it would still have my name on it. Curiously, though, one thing my PGPD essay highlighted was the fact that participatory art needs a good structure to be laid down by the artist in order to work. You can’t tell people they can ‘create their own world’. They’ll only get confused.

Conditions for interactivity

My project is not interactive, really. It’s just investigating the idea that people will think about something more if they have to articulate a thought about it. That process is a valuable one. I don’t think it’s been explored that much. Perhaps, over time, the sense of authorship of the work will change depending on the number and nature of the answers, but the balance will still be skewed quite heavily toward me as author no matter what.

Anyway, here’s a good definition from ‘Internet Art’:
Page 65

In a fine essay about the computer games industry, Allucquère Rosanne Stone discusses the conditions laid down for genuine interactivity by Andy Lipman of MIT, which he defined as ‘Mutual and simultaneous activity on the part of both participants, usually working toward some goal, but not necessarily’. Five corollaries followed from this:

  1. The process should be open to interruption by each participant
  2. It should exhibit graceful degradation (if something comes up that the system cannot deal with, it should not stop the dialogue)
  3. There should be limited pre-planning (because of 1. only so much can be pre planned in advance)
  4. Paths should develop from interaction
  5. The users should have the impression that the database they are engaging with is infinite

A fair point

Page 67

While hype about interactivity should not blind activists to its potential, the obvious point should be raised that it can hardly be expected that people crippled in other walks of life by mass-media trivialisation and the instrumentality of work will be able to slough off such ingrained influences and so realise rational discourse online. Yet somehow online communities have sheltered these discourses in the past, and do so now, developing their users through discourse.

if perhaps a little melodramatic. Crippled by mass media trivialisation, eh? Crumbs.

Participation and politics

From the introduction to ‘Participation’ compiled by Claire Bishop

This emphasis on proximity was crucial to myriad developments in avant-garde theatre of the 1960s, and was paralleled by upheavals in visual art and pedagogy. In this framework, physical involvement is considered an essential precursor to social change. Today this equation is no less persistent, but its terms are perhaps less convincing. The idea of collective presence has (for better or worse) been scrutinized and dissected by numerous philosophers; on a technical level, most contemporary art is collectively produced (even if authorship remains resolutely individual); participation is used by business as a tool for improving efficiency and workforce morale, as well as being all-pervasive in the mass media in the form of television. As any artistic medium, then, participation is arguably no more intrinsically political than any other.

Despite this changing context, we can nevertheless draw attention to continuities between the participatory impulse of the 1960s and today. Recurrently, calls for an art of participation tend to be allied to one or all of the following agendas. The first concerns the desire to create an active subject, one who will be empowered by the experience of physical or symbolic participation. The hope is that the newly emancipated subjects of participation will find themselves able to determine their own social and political reality. An aesthetic of participation derives legitimacy from a (desired) causal relationship between the experience of a work of art and individual/collective agency. The second argument concerns authorship. The gesture of ceding some or all of the authorial control is conventionally regarded as more egalitarian and democratic than the creation of a work by a single artist, while shared production is also seen to entail the aesthetic benefits of greater risk and unpredictability. Collaborative creativity is therefore understood both to emerge from, and to produce, a more positive and non-hierarchical social model. The third issue involves a perceived crisis in community and collective responsibility. This concern has become more acute since the fall of Communism, although it takes its lead from a tradition of Marxist thought that indicts the alienating and isolating effects of capitalism. One of the main impetuses behind participatory art has therefore been a restoration of the social bond through a collective elaboration of meaning.

I’m quite unconvinced by the political idealism of participation. This idea that people might suddenly be empowered into a dynamic new mode of living by participation seems fairly incredible to me.

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