3. INTERACTION the difficult birth of the reader
Texts such as Barthes’ ‘The Death of the Author’ (1977), Bürger’s Theory of the Avant-Garde, Bourriaud’s Relational Aesthetics (2002) and Bishop’s Installation Art: A Critical History (2005) all point towards the centrality of the concept of deconstructing the barrier between the viewer and the work of art which is closely allied to the longstanding avant-gardist goal of bringing art into everyday life. The main point being stressed in this book is that the institutionalisation of transgressive art is slowing the pace of evolution towards this crucial goal. Art of 1980s was rich in critical theory and practice. Art of the 1990s has been theoretically poor. The most significant theoretical text to emerge out of the 1990s is Bourriaud’s Relational Aesthetics which is an attempt to bring the concept of art into life up to date. Although the aspiration informing this book is laudible the instances Bourriaud cites are unconvincing due to the fact that only one artist, Rirkrit Tiravanija, can be referred to as a sustained instance of relational aesthetics. Other artists include relational aesthetic work in their oeuvre but their practice is fundamentally moulded by an institutional matrix that demands precious objects and extraordinary individuals.
What is most remarkable about Tiravanija’s relational aesthetic art is that such sustained deterritorialisations of the museum remain a rarity. Nevertheless, Tiravanija and Bourriaud have opened up an important issue, that informs the critique in this book, and hopefully there will be artists with sufficient ingenuity to follow their lead.
In this chapter I will deal with Tiravanija’s work and the work of other artists who are also attempting to achieve a greater degree of viewer interaction. Bishop argues that the revolutionary feature of installation lies in its ‘activation’ of the viewer. That may have been the case in some of the seminal instances of installation art that Bishop cites—e.g. Alan Kaprow, Dan Graham, Hélio Oiticica—but if we examine institutionalised installation art at the turn of the millennium then we need to assess this allegedly new-found liberation of the viewer against the intense concentration of attention on the traditional focus of the artist as exceptional individual.
In the introduction it was noted that in ‘The Death of the Author’ Barthes’ observes that ‘classic criticism has never paid any attention to the reader; for it, the writer is the only person in literature’ (Barthes 1977: 148); and that this can be paraphrased as ‘the art system has never paid any attention to the viewer, the artist is the only person that matters’. At the turn of the millennium fine art finds itself in a position that is much more bound by tradition than was imagined in the days of postmodern theory and practice of the 1980s or the radical experimentation of the 1960s and 1970s. Accordingly our claims for a new focus on the viewer deserve to be closely questioned.
The most sophisticated theoretical text to emerge out of art of the 1990s is Bourriaud’s Relational Aesthetics, and the hero of that narrative is Rirkrit Tiravanija. Tiravanija is best known for installations such as Untitled (Free), 1992, in which he made pad tai every day for a month in the 303 Gallery, New York. The gallery became an open house into which anyone could enter and have a meal with Tiravanija together with anyone else who turned up. Katy Siegel and Paul Mattick note that the viewer’s consumption of the meal is itself part of the art work’ (Siegel 2004: 164). Tiravanija has stated that his work is ‘less about things in the gallery and more about the people I've met, had a conversation with, talked about things with, and looked at things with’ (Tiravanija 2006). Tiravanija’s work has become the prime instance of a mode of art that ostensibly focuses on human interactions rather than on precious objects.
One might expect Claire Bishop to approve of Tiravanija’s ingenious strategy for bringing everyday life into the museum and involving the viewer, but she is highly critical. She accuses him of creating artificially harmonious situations rather than focusing upon a more critical engagement with the everyday. She comments: ‘Ultimately Tiravanija’s works tend not to destablise our self-identificatory mechanisms but to affirm them, and collapse into everyday leisure’ (2005: 119). It is certainly the case that the mere involvement of the viewer does not lead to a condition of ‘activated spectatorship’ (Bishop 2005: 11) but few instances of canonical contemporary installation art would inspire ‘active engagement in the social-political arena’ (Bishop 2005: 11). And perhaps they don’t need to; the fact that the viewer is being involved is, in itself, a major step in the context of aesthetic politics. But one of the features of Tiravanija’s strategy that can be criticised is that the creative game is played by the artist not by the viewer-participant, but before continuing I would like to include some works by Angela Bulloch in the discussion.
Bulloch’s beanbag works provide another instance where an artist offers a participatory role for the viewer. For Flexible, 1997, at Art Club Berlin she provided large, brightly coloured beanbags, a CD-player and headphones so that visitors could chill out on the beanbag listening to music. In another beanbag installation for a group show at the Musée d'Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris, she placed the beanbags in front of monitors showing videos of recently released films. In each case the viewer is not presented with a work of art, instead the viewer is placed in a situation that radically questions our traditional relationship with art works within a gallery environment.
One can understand these chill-out zones as a deconstruction of the self-importance of the gallery environment and the way in which it frames the viewer as one who should submissively and respectfully contemplate what is on exhibition. One can also understand these works by Bullock as turning over power to the viewer. Certainly Bulloch notes that ‘It was interesting to me that the person looking at the piece was involved in a level of power given to them unexpectedly or that they could take … upon themselves to use. This renegotiation of power interested me.’ (MCA 1997). What seems significant in the case of the works cited is that the power ‘unexpectedly’ given to the viewer was the ability not to look at art. That is certainly a step away from being conditioned to focus respectful attention on great works of art but it is not participatory art. The viewer remains in the role of a passive consumer. What is more it is the artist and not the viewer who is playing a creative game. The game Bulloch is playing is that of pointing to the power afforded to the artist. But this is only possible because Bulloch is an artist; a status paradoxically defined by the fact that her deconstruction of the defining role of the art gallery is on exhibition in an art gallery.
We find a similar problem in Tiravanija’s works. It is difficult to see eating pad tai as a creative engagement on the part of the viewer. That of course is the point. The ingenuity of Tiravanija lies in his very simple solution to the problem of bringing art into everyday life. He takes the Duchampian Readymade to its logical conclusion and declares that everyday life is art. But this solution is flawed because as with Bulloch’s chill-out pieces there is no creative game involved except the game that the artist is playing. The viewer simply eats pad tai, but the artist is making a statement that is located within the language game (Lyotard 1984) which is the Duchampian Readymade. Marcel Duchamp played on the traditional concept of artistic genius by claiming that anything that the artist chose to be a work of art was a work of art. But this is not the whole story. By the 1960s it became apparent that what Duchamp’s Readymade really revealed was that it is not the artist who frames the object as a work of art, it is the gallery/museum. It is only when the object is exhibited in an art gallery, and better an art museum, that it becomes a work of art. The fact that Tiravanija’s convivial gatherings are always located in an art gallery reveals the nature of the art game being played in these instances.
The Readymade strategy can be understood as a creative game, as are most of the seminal strategies invented by Dada and Surrealism. In his landmark book Theory of the Avant-Garde Peter Bürger notes:
Given the avant-gardiste [sic] intention to do away with art as a sphere that is separate from the praxis of life, it is logical to eliminate the antithesis between producer and recipient. It is no accident that both [Tristan] Tzara's instructions for the making of a Dadaist poem and [André] Breton's for the writing of automatic texts have the character of recipes. This represents not only a polemical attack on the individual creativity of the artist; the recipe is to be taken quite literally as suggesting a possible activity on the part of the recipient. The automatic texts also should be read as guides to individual production. But such production is not to be understood as artistic production, but as part of a liberating life praxis. This is what is meant by Breton's demand that poetry be practiced (pratiquer la poesie). (Bürger 1984: 53)
Bürger takes us back to the origins of the discourse of deconstructive art and thereby helps clarify the project of bringing art into life that Dada initiated. Crucial to this project is the concept of intersecting the praxis of life with creative process. The games that were devised such as the Readymade, automatism and montage were supposed to be playable by anyone, they were a doorway into everyday life, but artists kept the games to themselves. Or more accurately, the art system, which is always the condition of possibility of the continued existence of art, ensured that the products of such games were treated as precious objects created by individual artist geniuses. And who can resist such adulation? It is not by accident that—like most installation art—Tiravanija’s everyday interventions invariably take place within the sanctum of an art gallery.
The main criticism of both Bulloch and Tirvanija’s tactics would be that they continue to place the viewer in the role of a passive consumer. The obvious next step would be to give the viewer something to do that facilitates a greater degree of creative engagement. But before embarking upon an examination of efforts in this direction one can note that a key feature of Tiravanija and Bulloch’s work is the absence of a traditional work of art. What we have instead is an apparatus that the viewer/participant can use. This concept of the substitution of the traditional work of art with an apparatus is also evident in the work of Carsten Höller.
Höller has produced a number of works that focus on providing the viewer with experiences that encourage new ways of seeing. In Umkehrbrille (upside-down glasses), 2001, viewers became participants who were invited to wear spectacles which turned the world upside down. In a similar vein he has created a harness on a rotating boom that swings the viewer around the gallery at almost ceiling height providing a very different point of view to that normally experienced when visiting an exhibition. Such works are great fun but they are also informed by Höller’s original profession as a scientist. Science is at its most beautiful when nothing is taken for granted and everything is questioned. It is this facet of science that energised the Enlightenment and caused a turn against the doctrinal dictatorship of religion. Such observations should help us understand why Höller has employed the concept of ‘doubt’ to explain his work; he observes:
Doubt and its semantic cousin, perplexity, which are both equally important to me, are unsightly states of mind we’d rather keep under lock and key because we associate them with uneasiness, with a failure of values. But wouldn’t it be more accurate to claim the opposite, that certainty in the sense of brazen, untenable affirmation is much more pathetic? It is simply its association with notions of well-being that gives affirmation its current status. (in Obrist 1999)
Doubt is most certainly a pertinent feature of the deconstructive project which foregrounds less what is known than what is not known; and which constantly questions that which is known on the basis that knowledge is always a cultural construction. One of Höller’s most interesting aesthetic approaches—which bears some resemblances to the intersection of art and science in interactive digital art—lies in his translation of scientific experiments into works of art; but in the context of this chapter I would prefer to refer to them as ‘art games’ where the term ‘game’ refers to the manner in with the apparatus provides the viewer with an active role.
Returning to Umkehrbrille, this interactive installation refers to an historic scientific experiment carried out in the 1890s by the psychologist George Stratton who used similar eyeglasses that inverted his visual field. After wearing these glasses for some time and experiencing increasingly disturbing perceptual distortions Stratton’s visual cortex eventually learnt how to reprocess the manifold of data and turn the world upright again. Stratton’s experiment supports the contention that unconscious cognitive (inferential) processes play a very active role in constructing reality. Unfortunately the full experiment requires too much time and too much pain to carry out in the context of an exhibition. Which in a sense makes Höller’s installation experience somewhat incomplete. But at least he has drawn the viewer’s attention to Stratton’s experiment and its implication: which is that the reality we take for granted—including corporeal sensation—is constructed by autonomous mental processes.
In Phi Wall, 2002, Höller makes use of another historical psychological experiment. Phi Wall is based on the Gestalt psychologist Max Wertheimer’s discovery, in 1910–12, that if two dots are projected in rapid sequence next to each other, with a short moment of darkness in between, most observers will perceive the event as one dot moving from one position to another. Like Umkehrbrille, Phi Wall is a scientific game with philosophical implications that are relevant to the encouragement of creative ways of seeing. The importance of the phi effect is that it shows that we do not perceive what is actually happening—one light switching on then the other switching off—instead we perceive the light as an object that moves from one place to another. The reason why we do not perceive what is actually happening is because all perception is mediated by unconscious inferential (cognitive) processes. Phi Wall demonstrates that there is no such thing as the innocent eye, or direct perception. Like Stratton’s experiment it points to the remarkable powers of unconscious information processing in the brain. Ultimately such experiments indicate the fact that the brain reconstructs the world we experience (including all our bodily sensations); a feat that is nothing short of miraculous. The virtual reality we inhabit is so exquisitely woven that we find it immensely difficult to understand it as a projection unless assisted by devices or chemicals that disrupt the perceptual-cognitive apparatus (Höller refers to entheogenic substances in his work Pealove Room, 1993, and Upside Down Mushroom Room, 2000).
Like the Surrealists, Höller explores the effects of interfering with unconscious mental mechanisms but goes that crucial step further by inviting the viewer to participate. In Light Wall, 2000, he constructed a consciousness altering machine that consisted of a 19m (62.3 foot) gallery wall filled with 3,552 twenty-five watt incandescent light bulbs that emit flashes of light with a frequency of 8.5hz (8.5 cycles per second). Höller was inspired in this work by the German neurologist Hans Berger who discovered brain waves in particular the alpha wave and thereby laid the basis for the development of the electroencephalogram (EEG). But Höller is more interested in the phenomenon of neuro-feedback wherein our perception of certain frequencies can induce mental activity to synchronise with the stimulus frequency. In the case of Light Wall the frequency of 8.5hz is akin to alpha wave activity (8–12 Hz) which is associated with calmness and relaxation. With its 3,552 light bulbs Light Wall is very bright, accordingly, the idea is to close one’s eyes in order to synchronise with the pulsation.
Höller is outstanding amongst contemporary installation artists in his capacity to create interactive apparatuses that touch upon issues regarding the functioning of consciousness. But he is the exception that proves the rule that most contemporary installation art is rather weak in its attempts to involve the viewer due to the traditional focus on demonstrating the artist’s individual ingenuity. If we want more instances of an effective, creative, engagement of the viewer we have to shift our attention away from fine art towards interactive digital art.
Interactive digital media should be understood as revolutionary in the same manner that the invention of perspective was revolutionary in the Renaissance. In the case of traditional art we have the viewer and the work of art. In the case of interactive digital art we have the viewer, an input device and the work of art. One of the earliest, sophisticated instances of digital interactive installation art is Jeffrey Shaw’s now classic work Legible City, 1989, (with Dirk Groeneveld); and it is refreshing to see a collaborator actually credited by the artist. In Legible City one rides a fixed bicycle the speed and direction of which effects where one travels within a computer generated city constructed out of 3D letters projected on a large screen ahead of the rider. The principal effect of this work is one of being embodied in the ‘legible city’. One has a palpable sense of physical relationship with the image on the screen to a degree that is rare when viewing traditional fine art media or television or film.
Legible City creates an immersive effect but what is more significant about this work is its intersection of immersion and interaction and it is remarkable that this has not been addressed in the current crop of literature on the topic of installation art. One can, however, criticise the content of Legible City on the basis that the interaction amounts to ‘bicycling’ around a city made of three-dimensional letters. At best it becomes an embodied mode of reading a nonlinear text. But the work is certainly significant as a phenomenological demonstration that one can achieve a corporeal involvement with a flat screen moving image if that image is coordinated with bodily input. Legible City reveals that the critical difference between digital interactive installation and sculptural installation lies in the presence of an interactive input devices—in the case of Legible City, the bicycle.
Digital interactive input devices, of which there can be many, are tools (e.g. mouse, joystick, gamepad and custom made devices) not works of art. These input devices are replaceable accessories to the work of art and therefore touching them is not a problem, indeed they have no other function than to be handled. It is also the case that the viewer can become an embodied participant without direct touch, via sensors that detect the human body. The level at which devices such as video cameras can scan the human body and enable it to participate in an embodied fashion is incrementing from year to year. At the turn of the millennium digital art is evolving in its own parallel universe that hopefully will eventually intersect with the world of fine art; but this could take a generation to occur. Certainly the current generation emerging in the early 2000s and following on from the artists who emerged in the late 1980s and 1990s does not indicate any significant shift to new media. However, it is significant to observe that video art remains the most exciting and inspiring field evident in the world of fine art; significant because the logical next step for video art is interactive video.