So sinful; So good

As an audience, I am drawn towards digitally interactive artwork. When I visited Whitney Biennale 2018, it was as if my legs grew a spirit of their own and dragged the rest of me towards VR films by Jordan Wolfson and kinetic sculptures by Jon Kessler. In 2014, right after graduate school, I worked on a commercial project with a few video game developers. My task was to program a starry sky that’s captivated by body motion captured by an xbox kinect body sensor. However, somewhere deep inside of me, I feel deeply ashamed. When I waved my hands and enjoyed a whole room of digital stars being gravitated by the power of my body, it was as if somewhere tucked inside a dark corner, the woken spirit of Vincent Van Gogh looked down with his piercing gaze and howling into the deepest void of my soul – you shallow little human getting devoured by simple pleasure.

As an artist who appreciates witty concepts and good laughs, I feel really ashamed. As an academic who assigns philosophical readings on aesthetics such as Gustav Bachelard’s The Poetics of Aesthetics to my own students, I feel guilty. I admired Bachelard depiction of the poetic objects. Through a sincere admiration, we enter an alternative relationship with everyday objects. Through intimacy, these objects become the “interface” for the inhabitant to move freely between the “immediate” and the “grandeur”. Comparing to what Bachelard described, digital interactivity feels too immediate, too direct. In critiquing the fast food manner of digital interactivity, New media theorist Lev Manovich writes “the literal interpretation of interactivity is just the latest example of a larger modern trend to externalize mental life. By asking us to click on one hyperlinked sentence to go to the next, we are asked to mistake the structure of somebody else’s mind for our own”. Indeed, if artistic exchange is meant to provide an entrance to an domain of the infinity, of the dreamy and the imaginative, doesn’t the simple cause-and-effect operation of digital interactivity feels too purposeful?

But digital interactivity does relate to and empower, in a way that’s very real to many. In 2013, when Random International’s immersive environment Rain Room graced MoMa New York, audiences waited for over 5 hours in the steamy summer heat to experience it first hand. Ken Johnson wrote in the New York Times, calling it an “entertainment ingenuity”, an epitome of FOMO New York. However, the Rain Room effect quickly globalized. When it reached Yuz Museum in Shanghai, its size increased 50% to 150 square meters, totalling nearly nearly 190,000 viewers.

Digital interactivity feels liberating. As british artist, pioneer of Cybernetics Art Roy Ascott famously pointed out, interactive art is tasked with the hope of freeing itself from the “modernist ideal of the perfect object”. Instead of thinking of interactivity as a temporary gimmick, he believes that artwork should be responsive to viewer, instead of being a static object bestowed by the artist. He also argues that long before digital interactivity, painters and sculptures have long attempted to expand the repertoire of exchange above and beyond visual language alone, such as tactile, audio, kinetic, and communicative. From this lense, digital interactivity is nothing new, but simply a natural continuation of expanding the language of aesthetic into the realm of “behavioral”.

In 1987, four year after its inception, Prix Ars Electronica, arguably the Oscar for media and electronics art started a new award category – interactive art.  The early winners included Sr. Tim Berners-Lee, inventor of World Wide Web, a hypertext based medium, as well as artist duo behind Home of the Brain, a virtual altar resembling Carl Jung’s analytical psychology theory on the collective unconsciousness.

This category has traditionally focused on interactivity in digital art, which means the form of interactivity itself is digital as well. In the twentieth century, the direction of the interactivity award started to change. In 2013, the winning work “Pendulum Choir” intentionally included spacial and human interactivity into the installation design. While machine aided the body orientation of the singers, voices reverberated spatially within the performance space to produce the final musical piece.   

In 2016, an interesting plus sign appeared after the Interactive Art category, transforming it into a slightly new category called Interactive Art+. On the Prix Ars Electronica website, it was explained that the PLUS in “Interactive Art +” is intended to signal the new inclusion of a multiplicity of new and unusual forms of interaction that haven’t been taken into account of the generally understood definition of interactive art. The juror explained that they are increasingly looking for something conceptually interesting and socially well thought out, while at the same time demonstrating innovative usage of emerging media technology.


The Million Dollar Question

Everything we do in relationship to an object could be viewed as interactive. Some could argue that, when viewing an unfinished painting, our imagination wonders into the void. In attempting to complete its whole meaning, we enter into a vast space of infinity that’s interactive in the realm of aesthetic wonder. Some of us have also had the peculiar experience of losing an old sweater or hat, and the sadness that ensue that’s goes much more above and beyond a simple object that’s meant to shield us from coldness. As a little kid, I was an ferocious collector of rubber erasers. I spent ridiculous amount of hours visiting stationary shops after school and on weekends. Over the course of several years, I had collected erasers that push out from a lipstick container, and a group that fit into a mini sushi box. When I visited my grandmother decades after, my grandmother brought out a whole bag of erasers, most of which had lost their functions to clean, and touching them inside that greasy plastic bag almost brought me to tears. My rubber eraser collection got me started thinking about a question. Every form of physical or digital interactivity is the external manifestation of an internal exchange. As someone who appreciates and makes digital interactive artwork, how do we create and learn to appreciate encounters with objects that allows us to elevate above and beyond the literal, formalistic form of interactivity?


Where it all started

In the 1990s, one of the seminal figures of Cybernetics Art, Roy Ascott established the Centre for Advanced Inquiry in the Interactive Arts in University of Wales, Newport. It was one of the world’s pioneer institutions that established the study of the convergence between Art and Technology as an academic disciplines. In addressing his students, he gave an advice – don’t be afraid to bring spirituality into digital and computation artwork. Roy’s teaching inspired a generation of early cybernetics artists who, instead of conceiving of object as tools that’s trying to help humans achieve a finite, utilitarian goal, instead tried to answer an entirely different, much more ambitious  question – is it possible to establish a universal language to capture features of human, animals, and machines? According to Ascott, the “good” form of art, whether physical, visual, tactical, or digital, adhere to a basic principle a perpetual “feedback”. In a painting, we are moving from depicting a single, ideal object, to depicting system of objects, the relation of which raises more questions than answers(Salvador Dali’s The Persistence of Memory). In a video game, we are moving from survival shooter model to a narrative walk model, in which the game is never won but instead in a constant state of play(Jenova Chen’s Journey). In an art installation, we are moving from an ideal, perfect object to initiating an ongoing dialogue among the artist, observer and the machine.



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