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  Does Interactivity Lead to New Definitions in Art

  [ Anne-Marie Duguet ] *

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Art's confrontation with new technology has led to calls for a redefinition of art, and to demands for a revision of aesthetic criteria. Criticism finds itself at a loss, for it lacks concepts and guidelines enabling it to grasp and convey the singularity of new artistic developments. Critics therefore react in various, often extreme, ways, vacillating between an obsessive fear of gadget-based charlatanism and an unconditional commitment to technology as the key to renewal. On the one hand, a conservative discourse calls eagerly for a return to traditional concepts of the artwork, of sacredness, and of beauty, while on the other, an often demagogic and opportunistic stance dismisses all criteria as dogma to be rejected in favor of individual judgment and an impressionistic approach. Most critics, however, simply adopt a wait and see attitude.

When, in the recent past, technological possibilities matched bold artistic ambitions, they hastened the demise - already triggered by various avant-garde movements - of notions such as: the unity of an artwork, intentionality as the ultimate validation of that work, the artist's skills, the value of originality, and the spectator's status as an observer from a fixed point of view.

Video installations and interactive works now provide a privileged terrain for exploring these artistic shifts and upheavals. In many ways, they press for a reconsideration of the entire sphere of art, not least of all its claim to autonomy. Interactive installations are borderline works, extending across diverse realms - communications, science, entertainment, education. And they are perfectly impure, mixing as they do media, techniques, and a whole range of elements (including the human body), thereby incorporating heterogeneous codes, attitudes, and skills into art.

The problem of legitimizing these practices is similar to the problems encountered during the development of photography, cinema and video. Art defines itself by what it excludes as well as by what it admits. The art scene exercises control over its domain by systematically rejecting the teeming world of video games, demo tapes, scientific and technical productions, applied arts, and so on. It is striking to note the haste - not to say the fury - with which a work is deemed acceptable or unacceptable as art.

The current fluctuation and precariousness of critical criteria are obviously linked to the very evolution of such works and the context in which they are presented. It is only by recognizing recent transformations and seeking new definitions that the issue of evaluating these works can be rethought. This task can be accomplished by first determining what constitutes an artifact that is "primarily intended for aesthetic consideration," which is precisely what Gerard Genette does in his recent book, L'ceuvre de l'art. Rather than asking Nelson Goodman's question, "When is art?", Genette prefers to interrogate the very mode of existence of such works. Both formulations circumvent what Goodman calls a "false question", namely "What is art?". Pursuing for a moment the distinction made by Genette following Goodman - installations could be described not as autographic works, but as allographic works. They are not physical objects in the sense that painting and sculpture are, always offering themselves in identical fashion to contemplation and imitation. Installations do not have a single mode of existence, but at least two. What a collector acquires is an argument, a technical description - sometimes with images, elements or equipment - that basically comprises a set of instructions and a right to exhibit the work. At this stage it might be said the work is comparable to a musical score or an architectural drawing. According to Genette, such works have "a plural immanence", which means that they can take multiple forms, that there is an indefinite number of correct executions. "Correct" here means complying with the instructions set out in the proposition. Whereas immanent properties do not change, actualization properties vary considerably depending on the architectural or symbolic siting of the exhibition, or depending on decisions taken by the artist. Each occurrence, each actualization of the work is unique, not reproducible.

But here one could evoke a third mode of existence for these works - after the conceptual mode and the installation mode namely that of performance, of experience. The installation is designed to be explored by visitors who, in so doing, not only progressively build their own perception and awareness of it, but also that of other visitors. The very existence of certain works, in particular interactive installations, requires visitors to play a specific role - one visitor effectively executes a performance for the others. The specific temporality of these works is worth stressing, for they are above all processes that exist only for the duration of the experience, for the here-and-now of their realization. They belong to an art of presentation and not representation (even if they incorporate representation).

A provisional definition of installation might entail the idea of a performance-inducing "apparatus" (dispositif), which should often be the first thing described when discussing such works: an arrangement of devices and elements as well as modes of enunciation likely to produce specific effects of perception, awareness, pleasure, representation. The apparatus may itself become the issue explored by several installations. For by creating a site of exchange and transformation between a mental space and a material reality, an apparatus defines the conditions of a given experience, that is to say the range of possibilities and constraints governing relations between subject, technology, image, environment and participants. It establishes the specific operations that constitute the uniqueness of each works its very logic.

Video ihstallations have already spurred reflection on the status and role of the spectator, on the activity of perception and the issue of representation. Interactive installations are now intensifying this radical displacement of attention onto the actual experience of the work, and artists are becoming less interested in producing startling images than in inventing new ways to access them and to explore virtual worlds. For certain works, then, interactivity is not a genre but a mode of existence, a fundamental parameten Whether it entails a simple triggering device or the infinite exploration of a complex data base, interactive art transforms the spectator into operator, altering traditional assumptions concerning the conception and j production of a work. Artists are led to invent specific experiential conditions. But the type of experience at stake here is j more than just the sensory and cognitive experience typical of j the aesthetic contemplation of an artwork, for it now includes the competing, interactive experience of an operational approach that the spectator only partially masters.

Given this new situation, the interface cannot be a mere afterthought - it now becomes the very heart of the work, the key to the entire apparatus that it drives. And the potential range of interfaces is unlimited insofar as systems now on the market can serve as the point of departure for the invention of original objects and unexpected combinations. Although artists may become tinkerers and engineers, it is no longer the virtuosity of the hand that counts but the ability of the eventual operator to explore the system devised by artists, who must therefore reflect on new, pragmatic parameters concerning ease of use, physical adaptability to the pace of machine computation, and behavioral and perceptual effects triggered by the interface.

Like video installations, interactive installations introduce multisensory experience into the field of art, potentially mobilizing all the senses. Yet interactive operating procedures and interface experimentation also provide the possibility of rethinking the very relationships between sense organs, redistributing their roles. The supremacy of the eye in organizing the visible world is thus challenged in radical fashion. The gaze delegates part of its power to the good will and virtuosity of fingers, to the appropriateness and precision of gestures, speed of movement, control of breath, intonation of voice. The eye often retains only a monitoring function, and must dialogue with the hand that seeks and activates the virtual world.

But as ingenious as an interface may be, it cannot be reduced to its instrumental or ergonomic features, for it is also the site of metaphorical and conceptual issues. Above all, it is part of a vaster apparatus that mobilizes various contradictions and tensions between virtuality and reality, between different models and techniques of representation, between individual experience and collective activity.

The transformation of the nature of the work and the accompanying shift in the role of spectators also implies a change in the role of artists. However, a misreading of this development (or a refusal even to consider it) is the basis of the common believe that artist and spectator have now become co-creators. But creators of what? The artist is creator of the proposition, the concept behind the piece, the apparatus, the overallcontext. An arist is thus responsible br the coherence and logic of the work. The visitor meanwhile, takes up the proposkion, plays on it, performs it. Any analysis of an interactive installation that seeks to reveal its internal imperatives and specific ru]es will have to take into account these major shifts in the 'production history' of a work in order to elaborate relevant criteria. A formalist approach, at any rate, can only be superseded by confronting a work's internal logic with the nature of its content, with its relationship to various contexts, and with its degree of relevance - that is to say the perspectives it opens and the issues it raises.