Pioneers and leading figures of interactive art, Christa Sommerer and Laurent Mignonneau have gained worldwide recognition for their artworks and their research on interface culture and participatory art. On the occasion of their workshop Solar Insects at the Art and Technology Program VIDA 2013 at Laboratorio Arte Alameda in Mexico, the artists tell us about their work and the development of interactive art over the last two decades.
You have created interactive artworks for more than 20 years. In your opinion, how has interactive art evolved over the last decades?
In the early 90ies interactive art was rather new and artists like us started to explore the potential of computer supported interactivity by developing hardware and software interfaces that allowed novel ways for the public to engage in interaction with a piece of art. Many pioneers of this time set the trend for future technical as well as artistic developments.
Since access to high-end computers was restricted and difficult, only a few artists were able to work with these technologies in specific research laboratories and they sometimes even invented the technologies by themselves. The group of artists who worked with interactive systems in the 90ies was quite small, many of them had artist-researcher positions in laboratories and we all knew each other, met at the same festivals, exhibitions and symposia. It was a tightly connected scene of artists working with and developing interactive systems and art pieces.
While there was a huge and very positive public feedback at exhibitions at that time, the art world hardly took notice of these new art form. It was only a handful of curators and writers who recognized the potential of this new art movement also in terms of art historical relevance and future influence.
In the years 2000 onwards finally more and more artists came on board and started to work with interactive technologies and interactive systems as well. The first off-the-shelf systems appeared and it became easier to work with digital technologies even without a computer engineering or programming background and/or access to advanced research laboratories.
In addition more and more universities opened computer art departments where media art was on the curriculum as well. Many of the early pioneers of interactive art took good teaching positions at art universities, developed new curricula and also engaged into the wide-spread academic acceptance of media art and interactive art through community work, organizing symposia, publishing, curating etc.
From 2010 on finally DIY (Do it yourself) and DIWO (Do it with another) movements and the cheap availability of hardware and software interfaces led to another boom of interactive art. It became increasingly easy to work with digital technologies, develop interfaces and create interactive artworks, also fueled by the output of the bachelor and master programs that supported students during their studies.
While many of the early pioneers understood that media art will become a big trend in the future, many of us were still surprised how fast this trend caught up and how wide spread it became just 20 years later. The wide-spread intrusion of media technologies into our daily lives of course also helped to speed up this trend.
Seeing your work in the tradition of audience participatory art, which new elements or perspectives are introduced in your artistic practice?
We are interested in participatory art forms, where the artwork changes and develops according to how the visitors interact with the work of art. Of course many participatory art forms in the 1960ies and also cybernetic art in the 1970ies and 1980ies were also open to change and input from the audience and on a conceptual level the artwork was very open as well, e.g. in the instruction pieces of Yoko Ono or The Senster project by Ihnatowicz. However interactive art allows the direct manipulation of the user generated interaction data, they can be used for changing the visual, auditory, haptic or even olfactory reaction and interaction of the media art work. So capturing the various interaction modalities through interfaces we construct, helps to translate user interaction data into constantly changing interactive scenarios.
Erkki Huhtamo has criticised other artists for focusing too much on the interface and not on the content of the artwork. Which would be, in your experience, the main contributions of interactive art nowadays, when all sorts of interactions with machines are increasingly a part of our daily life?
For sure the main quality of an interactive artwork must be its concept. The technology should only be a means to achieve the realization of the artistic concept in the best way. Technology for its own sake is surely not enough, we agree with Erkki Huhtamo.
However one also has to acknowledge that developing new types of interfaces and interactive systems can help to produce new interaction concepts for the future. Sometimes the borders between art, design and engineering in interactive art have been blurred. Besides, several artists in this field have also invented new systems and even applied for patents on their inventions. This cross-disciplinarity is especially visible if one looks at the submissions and awards in the interactive art category at the Prix Ars Electronica in Linz, Austria. Several media artists have united the role of artist/ designer/ engineer/ inventor in their own productions and depending on the context they show either an artwork or an invention. We should also consider the economic situation, as almost no one in interactive art can live from purely artistic productions and exhibitions.
This might change however once interactive art will be fully acknowledged as a contemporary art form. We can already see this trend happening as galleries and museums start to exhibit interactive art alongside other art forms. And finally an education at art universities that sensibilizes students on the historic connections of media art and interactive art is essential if we want interactive art to be understood not as a technical gadgetry but as an art form with its own language and aesthetic and conceptual quality.
Artificial life has been a key element of your work over the years. Is it still a fertile ground for artistic research? What is your opinion about current artistic projects related to A-Life?
For many years we explored genetic algorithms, generative art and complex adaptive systems for the production of our own interactive artworks, as we were interested in the evolutionary aspects of these works. Of course Artificial Life is still very relevant to many artists and generative art is booming. For our own artistic development it is still relevant, however we are combing it nowadays with a media archaeological approach, e.g. in the work of Escape from 2012, where an old magic lantern in transformed into an interface device. Here visitors can explore the walls in a gallery space and see small dark isopods appear projected on the walls. They perform a sort of swarming behaviour and at one point assemble to form sad looking children’s faces. While Artificial Life is part of the concept to create life-like behaviour of the isopods, the conceptual part of the lamp as interface for exploring an unknown emotional space of children’s faces is equally important.
You have been inspired in your work by the theories of Richard Dawkins, John Casti, Christopher Langton and many other scientists and researchers. Do you consider that art can bring a better understanding of the theories and developments of scientific research?
We never understood our artworks as illustrations of these scientific theories, they were used by us as inspiration to push concepts of open-ended interaction, artificial evolution linked to interaction and other artistically interesting concepts for machine-machine of human-machine interaction further. However we were often told that interactive art can also help to better understand scientific principles or at least create an emotional awareness of these fields.
In “Value of Art”, you explored the economic value of the artwork, but since then you have moved to other subjects. Is the art world as a subject less interesting than other themes in your work?
Not at all, we still work on the The Value of Art series and plan a large exhibition in a well known art museum, where the measurement of the visitors interaction time and attention to the artworks in an already existing exhibition is the main artistic intervention.
The Value of Art series is a concept that we developed in 2010 and we still conceptually work on the connection between the economic value of an artwork and the user interaction. This is a subject very relevant to the art world, especially now in our media based society where attention is also the new currency within social platforms such as Facebook and Twitter. From the like- to the prosumer and casting culture, we are constantly asked to evaluate our surrounding, products, services as well as other people. So it is perfectly logical that also artworks can be hypothetically evaluated according to user’s attentions.
Of course in the art market many components contribute to the creation of value within an artwork, but attention is certainly a key element in this context as well. With Information Aesthetic, Max Bense and Abraham Moles have already tried to offer a method to determine the value of art on mathematical, scientific and empirical bases, claiming that also subjective measures of the observers need to be included.
Artists like Edward Kienholz have written the supposed value of the art work directly onto the painting (For $13200, 1969), while John Baldessari has ironically dealt with the process and the material of art making as main components in his artwork Quality Material from 1966-68. So we can say that there is a long lasting connection between art and monetary value and that we are witnessing a paradigm shift happening right now: audiences and viewers demand participation in mainstream contemporary culture and commerce.
Thus the value of art can be put again into discussion based on new methods of viewers attention considerations, museum visitors observations and new sensing technologies. So The Value of Art series is an ongoing conceptual and critical artwork that should prepare viewers to the concept of their gaze having an influence on the work of art as well. It will give a glimpse on the frequencies of gazes and create awareness about ones’ own attention span towards art as well as one’s contribution to the value of an artwork in a gallery or museum setting.
Your artworks usually move from the art object towards art as a process, and you have described them as “living systems”. Is this particular condition of your artworks an advantage or a disadvantage in relation to its exhibition and preservation?
These days we use a more synergetic approach were we combine art objects with a process-based interactive system. This can be best seen in Life Writer (2004), Escape (2012) and Excavate (2012), all media archeological devices that use existing antique technology such as a type writer, a magic lantern or an old film projector and transform them into a dynamic interactive installation where images are process-based, generative and change according to user interaction data.
In your recent work, you have addressed the archaeology of media, bringing new life to obsolete technologies. What drives this interest towards these media? Will future obsolete technologies have the same cultural weight?
This is a personal interest in obsolete technologies as our media consumer society is producing obsolete technologies at a mind-blowing speed. A type writer form the 1930ies is still perfectly functional, these machines were designed to last and could even be inherited from generation to generation. Their engineering and manufacturing quality is superb. Nowadays planned obsolescence is a well known trick to make computers, mobile phones, tablet, or other electronic appliances last only for a few years. These devices artificially break down and we are told that repair is too costly and does not pay off. A sophisticated marketing machinery creates new demand and curbs consumer spending. With this artificial demand our society is wasting resources at an incredible speed and irresponsible volume.
Artists are starting to get concerned by this waste of resources and we are interested in re-cycling, up-cycling as well as down-cycling. This is not only an economic decision but also a statement against the ongoing collective irresponsibility. Using obsolete interfaces is a political statement as well as an aesthetic statement as it shows us the beauty of these interfaces and their by-gone cultural impact. It might also help to create awareness in how we deal with technology today.
In the workshop “Solar Insects” you show participants how to create artificial creatures powered by solar energy. Are these creatures meant to interact with the natural environment? Does the use of solar energy facilitate the development of more sustainable art and technology projects? Are you incorporating in this project the technical developments conceived for Solar Display?
This workshop will show participants how to create their own little solar critters. Every participant is asked to make their own individual design, there is not a specific model to follow. The workshop will create awareness on how little solar energy is necessary for the critters to actually sing and make sounds. When the critters are in the sun, they start to harvest the solar energy and use it to “sing”. Since every critter will be different variable sounds and “songs” will be created. Similarly to the Solar Display (2008) system, solar energy is the driving force for the activation of the self-sustained system.