Deconstructing Installation Art is a provocative yet closely argued text, citing many concrete examples, the aim of which is to renovate the now ageing discourse of ‘transgressive’ art, the latest manifestation of which can be found in the contemporary installation art movement.

Installation art emerged in the 1990s as the most salient movement in fine art at the turn of the millennium. A clutch of books accompanied its arrival, mostly glossy, picture-oriented books. Two texts, however, are outstanding: Nicolas Bourriaud's Relational Aesthetics (2002) and Claire Bishop's Installation Art, a Critical History (2005). Both texts argue that fine art of the 1990s and early 2000s is characterised by the achievement of a fundamental and enduring avant-gardist goal: enhanced interaction with the viewer and everyday life.[1]

In contrast I will argue that fine art at the turn of the millennium does not live up to the theoretical aspirations that Bourriaud and Bishop project onto it. It is argued that installation art rarely involves the viewer beyond the traditional mode of distanced optical contemplation because it is, for the most part, encompassed by the ‘look, but don’t touch’ ethos of the art museum.

Transgressive art reached a crescendo in the 1960s and early 1970s but the commercial gallery system adapted to this phenomenon proving itself capable of transmuting any anti-art manifestation that the avant-garde could throw at it into precious objects. By the 1990s this miraculous ability became acknowledged and accepted by fine artists; and the gallery-bound character of installation art can be read as a graphic indicator of the new-found intimacy between the ‘transgressive’ avant-garde artist and the art institution. What was once transgressive and experimental is now institutionalised and professionalised.

As for involving the viewer, even the most radical contemporary fine artist, Rikrit Tiravanija—the quintessential instance of Bourriaud’s ‘relational art’—does not design creative activities for the viewer-reader to become involved in. Instead he has designed a creative game that demonstrates his own ingenuity—the latest of a long series of variations on Marcel Duchamp’s Readymade theme in which everyday life is brought into the gallery in order to be framed as fine art. The closest that contemporary installation art has come to true interactivity is evident in Carsten Höller’s Test Site slide installation at Tate Modern in late 2006. And the importance of this very recent work lies mostly in its projection of an interactive art ethos (epitomised by the Ars Electronica Center in Linz) into a bastion of high culture.

The critique of contemporary fine art is balanced in Deconstructing Installation Art by the identification of a new form of avant-gardist art that currently lies outside the fine art system. This is an emerging form which has various labels ‘digital art’, ‘new media art’, ‘interactive art’; but the term I will deploy is ‘media art’, which includes interactive digital installation art and socially oriented art that provides genuine involvement in everyday life. Media art has been busy over the past twenty-five years building its own alternative support systems and has espoused the radical and progressive values that the more congealed fine art system has largely reduced to the level of rhetoric.


INTRODUCTION: The Museum Problem

Claire Bishop provides an excellent historical contextualisation of installation art that points, in passing, to its origins in Dada and Surrealism. But it is possible to go further, using Peter Bürger’s classic text Theory of the Avant-Garde (1984) to demonstrate that contemporary installation art is the latest manifestation of a long-standing deconstructive art project the core goals of which are to involve the viewer and bring art into life. These goals have proven very difficult for fine art to achieve due to its intimate relationship with the commercial gallery system and the sanctity of the art museum. New media art does not bear the burden of such historical baggage and finds it relatively easy to achieve the core goals that have eluded fine artists since the early twentieth century.

1. IMMERSION in a field of distance         

Immersion is one of the key features of installation art identified by authors on the topic. Bishop, for example, claims that immersive installation ‘activates’ the viewer (2005: 6). But this claim is undermined by the fact that most instances of installation art submit to the panoptic regime of the gallery and its segregation of precious works of art from the viewer. There are rare instances that successfully dislocate the panoptic regime, for example, Olafur Eliasson’s The Weather Project in the Turbine Hall of Tate Modern in 2003 and Höller’s slide installation, Test Site, in the same space in 2006. It will be argued that the principal achievement of such works lies precisely in expanding the social function of the museum. If we take away this ethico-aesthetic framework then works such as Höller’s slides become considerably less significant.

Varieties of computer-based virtual reality will also be examined and questions will be posed regarding why such powerful modes of immersive art are not treated in the current texts on installation art. Finally the topic of narrative immersion will be explored. This topic is pertinent to contemporary art due to the prominent role played by video art which has brought cinematic aesthetics into the domain of art practice including installation art.

2. INTERACTION: The Difficult Birth of the Viewer

Interaction with the viewer and with everyday life have been central goals of deconstructive art since Duchamp, Dada and Surrealism (Bürger 1984). These goals were especially strong in the revolutionary explosion of deconstructive art in the 1960s and early 1970s. But since then deconstructive fine art has devolved into aesthetic games that artists play in order to win institutional approbation. The basic argument in this chapter is that interactive media art is significantly more successful at attaining the radical and experimental goals of involving the viewer and interacting with everyday life, and examples will be adduced to support this contentious argument. Again, the question will be raised as to why, given the rhetorical support for interactivity in texts such as Bourriaud (2002) and Bishop (2005), is it the case that texts on installation art exclude mention of interactive media art?

3. RECOMBINATION: Demystifying Creativity           

The most common form of interaction with the viewer evident in contemporary fine art installation is via the nonlinear narrative, a form it shares with video art. It will be argued that the nonlinear narrative, what Roland Barthes called the ‘writerly’ text (1974), can only be described as interactive if the viewer can be said to creatively engage with the work. But that demands a critical account of what it is to be creative, which is lacking in contemporary accounts of fine art. Art theory since the 1980s has concentrated on poststructuralist accounts of creativity. It will be argued, however, that key theorists such as Derrida can be accused of a mystification of creativity akin to that evident in romantic aesthetics (see Derrida 2001: 7–8). As a foil to such mystification a more empirical account of creativity will be provided via David Hume’s philosophy of the association of ideas which maps onto both Surrealist automatism and current trends in artificial intelligence (connectionism) and artificial creativity (e.g. Stephen Thaler’s Creativity Machine). Using selected instances of nonlinear narrative installation art the Humean framework will be used to identify similarities and differences between the creative engagement of the artist and that of the viewer-reader.

4. DISSOCIATION and Identity Crisis           

This chapter continues the focus on the nonlinear ‘writerly’ narrative in contemporary installation art but concentrating on female artists who tackle issues of identity relevant to a postmodern condition saturated by mass media. Whereas women’s art of the 1980s tended to be overtly critical of mass media stereotyping of female identity, art of the 1990s treats issues of identity more in terms of narrative games that play with concept of identity. The intention is that the viewer will interact with the spatially differentiated parts of an installation in the manner of reading a ‘writerly’ text. The degree to which this mode of reception offers the viewer-reader creative engagement will be investigated with regard to specific case studies.

CONCLUSION: Solving the Problem          

Few of the instances of contemporary fine art installation addressed in this book come close to the involvement of the viewer and interaction with everyday life evident in the emerging field of media art. The closest that most instances of installation come to interactivity is via the ‘writerly’ nonlinear narrative. Although this form is of significance it preserves traditional values concerning the exceptional status of the artist and the work of art. It reinforces the impression that artistic ‘transgression’ has become largely academic. But media art at the turn of the millennium offers an alternative, more vigorous and less compromised mode of avant-gardism. The book will conclude with a number of instances of media art that clearly demonstrate that it is possible to directly involve the viewer by escaping the confines of the museum and taking art into everyday life.


Barthes, Roland. 1974. S/Z, trans. R. Miller. New York: Hill and Wang.

Bishop, Claire. 2005. Installation Art: A Critical History. Tate, London.

Bourriaud, Nicolas. 1998 Relational Aesthetics. Dijon: Les presses du reel.

Bürger, Peter. 1984. Theory of the Avant-Garde. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Davies, Hugh Marlais, Ronald J. Onorato, and San Diego Museum of Contemporary Art. 1994. Blurring the Boundaries: Installation Art, 1969-1996. San Diego, CA: Museum of Contemporary Art, San Diego.

De Oliveira, Nicolas, Nicola Oxley, Michael Petry, and Michael Archer. 1991. Installation art. London: Thames and Hudson.

De Oliveira, Nicholas, Nicola Oxley, and Michael Petry. 2003. Installation Art in the New Millennium: The Empire of the Senses. London: Thames & Hudson.

Derrida, J. 2001. ‘Force and Signification’. In Writing and Difference. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, pp. 1–35.

Foster, H., ed. 1983. The Anti-Aesthetic: Essays on Postmodern Culture. Port Townsend, Washington: Bay Press.

Rosenthal, Mark. 2003. Understanding Installation Art: From Duchamp to Holzer. Munich; London: Prestel.