True or False: If It’s Not Interactive It’s Broken

by Paddy Johnson on April 25, 2011 · 12 comments Opinion

This image is a net art meme waiting to happen. Via: @jomc

A while back I penned a contentious post entitled “Taking Stock of Art Making in the Age of “I’m a Child of The Internet”. I wrote then that I didn’t believe describing oneself as an “internet native” qualified as describing one’s artistic practice. I still don’t, but as I discovered six months ago there are plenty of people who disagree. The most recent comes from Kevin Kelly, who last week on The Technium offered three anecdotes shared by friends:

  • A young girl who grew up without a TV but with plenty of computers visits some friends and asks where she can find the mouse for the TV.
  • A young toddler declares paper “broken” when she discovers she can’t “unpinch” the photo to make it larger the way she can on an iPad.
  • An eight-year-old can’t understand what life would be like without computers because he can’t imagine a life without the Internet.

From this Kelly draws the conclusion that the Internet is not about computers, but about “humanity” and that if something is not interactive it is broken. This is a little hyperbolic for my taste, and of course, the core of this post traffics off myths I’ve spent years debunking in the art world: a child’s lack of experience may result in purer expression, but it’s not any more valuable.

Let’s begin with the obvious: Anecdotes about what kids like don’t necessarily tell us a whole lot about what we will care about as adults. They might give us a few clues about the basic ways we use technology, but I think it’s a mistake to attribute more meaning than is necessarily there.

Kelly falls into this trap when he goes on to draw the conclusion that the Internet is about “humanity”. TV is about content too (not hardware) but we at least managed not to attribute such hyperbole to the 24 hour news cycle. Kelly’s other point though — that interactivity is crucial to using and understanding the web — is worth more discussion. Arguably, there’s little agreement on this point within the art world. Just one month ago, I visited a new media classroom at MICA where we discussed whether interactivity limited group collaboration. Would this explain the decline of net art engaging interactive practices?

There’s some question as to whether we can even say there’s less interactive art being made these days, particularly since it can be defined so broadly (think the Man Bartlett’s of social media art, the Rirkrit Tiravanija’s of relational aesthetics, the Camille Utterbacks of interactive installation art). Certainly, we’re seeing a lot less David Rokeby-esque work that directly responds to body. It’s unclear if this will change in the next couple of years, but I am seeing some of the same obsessive forces that drove the creation of Rokeby’s A Very Nervous System in the world of iphone and ipad development. No one can predict the future, but I’d argue a look at what artists and other creative types are making tells us far more about the field, than what kids are doing with new toys.


Jennifer Chan April 26, 2011 at 6:02 am

I won’t lie, I know nothing about computers.

I also don’t believe in the concept of “digital immigrants”… I think that those who are inclined to, will adopt. so… I don’t really understand what the issue is if someone says their work is influenced or inspired by online interactions if they have relevant work/opinions on it–not because it’s cool and “new”.

I find it to be a bigger issue when the work in a curated show has absolutely nothing to do with the internet and info theory is abstractly imposed upon it…

Anonymous April 26, 2011 at 6:09 am

How often could info theory be abstractly imposed upon shows with different curated themes though? Most art critics only talk about the internet when forced!

Rafael Rozendaal April 26, 2011 at 1:31 pm

Art loses its “cool” when its interactive. The gallery/museum is a temple, a place of authority, you’re not supposed to touch things. The art space would lose its cool and become an arcade.

Anonymous April 26, 2011 at 2:32 pm

So, no Cory Arcangel I Shot Andy Warhol for you huh?

I’m glad you commented on this thread, because I was thinking about some of your work when I wrote this. Does this mean you are uninterested in exhibiting webpages you’ve made that require a mouse in a gallery? I was wondering how you think about those pieces.

Rafael Rozendaal April 26, 2011 at 2:50 pm

I obviously care a lot about interactivity, I deal with it every day. The mouse, touch devices, kinect in galleries, it’s very important to me. But I’ve seen a decline in interactive netart and hardly any interactivity in major/official exhibitions. The art world/market is based on coolness. I like operating in an area that is not cool. More text here:

Anonymous April 26, 2011 at 3:08 pm

Five million questions are about to follow. Apologies in advance. I’m really just very interested in the topic and want to be sure I understand your point of view clearly. Also, to be clear about my own, I am generally in favor of art that errors on the side of personal and engages viewer’s body in some way. For this reason, I enjoy interaction when it creates a more intimate art experience. So….

Do you mean “coolness” like a conscious distancing and impersonal feel to a gallery or “coolness” as “hip”?

From the linked text:

What is “interactive depiction”?

“Interactivity is usually seen as a means to an end, but what if it’s a destination?” I take this to mean you are in favor of interaction in which there is no goal or particular point. Can I also assume you are in favor of social interaction?

Rafael Rozendaal April 26, 2011 at 3:29 pm

Do you mean “coolness” like a conscious distancing and impersonal feel to a gallery or “coolness” as “hip”?
A bit of both. When you place something in a big room with white walls in an expensive area in a major city, it becomes cool, no matter what you place in that room. The room charges the art object with status and exclusivity. Art has this tone of voice, a certain distance, a place of contemplation when its done well, and intimidation in other cases. Intimidation in the sense that if you dont get it, you are dumb, the art shouldnt be questioned. Im exaggerating, but I think this is the general feeling for most people who enter a Chelsea gallery for the first time. Its the same feeling when you enter an expensive clothing store and the staff looks at you like you’re not good enough to shop here. They have to look at you that way, to maintain brand value. They’re selling air after all.
To place interactive art in these temples of culture breaks the coolness, it breaks the distance between the viewer and the art.
This coolness is great sometimes, it can add to the experience. Im just wondering if interactive art goes against the very nature of art, which usually requires people to sit back.

What is “interactive depiction”?
The simplest way for me to explain is this piece i made:
It is not a movie of a hand, it is not a drawing of a hand, it’s an interactive depiction. Or is there a better word for it?
When you think of the history of depiction; cave drawings, frescos, photos, moving photography, moving photography w sound, interactivity is a new dimension in representation. Playing soccer on a playstation is a depiction of a soccer game, but is also a game itself, its a grey area, its depiction, but the user is also present in the pictorial space, as a cursor or an avatar.

Suzanne April 26, 2011 at 4:38 pm

Recently I offered some 4-year-olds a bar of soap to wash their hands and they looked at me like ‘what?’ If it ain’t a foam sudz pump with a froggy face on it, it’s broken, too. Move my soap to the Smithsonian.

Justin McCarthy April 26, 2011 at 6:06 pm

You just about pin pointed the fallacy of childhood purity. Children are not a purer/undiluted/uncorrupted form of humanity, they are less developed humanity. There are broader themes in culture to this point, namely the striving for/emulation of permanent adolescence in thought, outlook and affectation.

dannyolda April 27, 2011 at 3:42 pm

I was glad to read this article. Many people often do treat the behavior of children as somehow pure but forget that kids are generally dumb (or at least ignorant) compared to their grown counterparts. It obviously comes from some collective obsession with what’s ‘natural’. Very interesting piece.

C. Mendoza April 26, 2011 at 6:01 pm

I really like the idea of the “interactive depiction.” It is much better than “interactive toy”, a term which I’ve heard and also used on occasion, which I think points to the perception problem that digital interactive art always suffers from. Computer art in general is viewed from an already existing perspective of what computers are supposed to be for (email, web, gaming, etc.) and what those applications are supposed to look like, which is somewhat similar to what video art also had (and still has) to struggle with (a preconceived notion of what the aesthetics and content of the medium are). If I am not getting work done in the computer, then it must be a “game”. And games, they are for kids, right? right?? (hence, this is the same prejudice that video games still fight against). Adjectives such as “fun” and “playful” are not necessarily “cool” (in fact, they may be considered “unserious”) so I think this might feed into your POV Rafael.

Justin McCarthy April 26, 2011 at 6:02 pm

“Art has this tone of voice, a certain distance, a place of contemplation when its done well, and intimidation in other cases.”

I think you are saying that intimidating art is the mark of badly done art in contrast to well done art that is contemplative. Not sure that this follows. Well done art can be intimidating and confusing. Contemplation often follows intimidation and confusion, at least for me.

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