Participatory Art in the Digital Age - Tim Cole Studio
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Participatory Art in the Digital Age

In 1952, John Cage’s seminal work 4’33”, in which the ambient sounds created by the audience of a recital Hall became music, redefined the boundaries of not only modern music but the role of the audience in a performance. Cage illustrated to the music world that chance and indeterminacy could be a driving force in formal composition. Although Cage illustrates the concept of indeterminacy quite clear through his music, we do see his concepts and techniques in other forms of art and performance.

In the digital age, participatory art has grown in popularity. With the advances in technology, artists have been creating new and interesting ways to manipulate and incorporate their artistic endeavors to actively involve the viewer. In this paper, I will argue that the traditional roles of audience/performance dynamics are being redefined through the use of new technologies and that a new aesthetic is being created through the medium of digital media. In particular, I will be focusing on Voice Tunnel (2013) by Rafael Lozano-Hemmer, Random International’s immersive environment, Rain Room (2012) and the online works of Rafaël Rozendaal.

John Cage’s work entitled, 4’33”, incorporated the methodological approach referred to as participatory or interactive art. In the essay, Interactive Art: the Art that Communicates, the authors Chee-Onn, Wong, Jung Keechul, and Yoon Joonsung define interactive art as “…art as art that can communicate. Interactive art is a form of art that heavily involves the spectators when projecting the artwork to them. Spectators either experience the piece of art through physical touch or by initiating interactivity in response to the artwork. The work evolves according to the feedback from the audience along the way.”1

Cage discusses his method of creation as “experimental”. Cage describes that the term “needs to be understood not as a descriptive of an act to be later judged in terms of success and failure, but simply as of an act the outcome of which is unknown.”2 Cage’s statement illustrates his intention of allowing malleability within a performance without illegitimatizing the final product.
Cage compares his musical form of creation to other disciplines of art by stating, “This openness exists in the fields of modern sculpture and architecture. The glass houses of Mies van der Rohe reflect their environment, presenting to the eye images of clouds, trees, or grass, according to the situation. And while looking at the constructions in wire of the sculptor Richard Lippold, it is inevitable that one will see other things, and people too, if they happen to be there at the same time, through the network of wires. There is no such thing as an empty space or an empty time. There is always something to see, something to hear.”3 By allowing the viewer to be aware of not only the space that the art object inhabits but it’s interaction with its environment, Cage illustrates that there is no such thing as a value of zero.

Cage discusses how using the technology of the day will assist in allowing us to move away from the dogmatic canon of 18th and 19th century instruments. By redefining the word
“music”, Cage believes that a more appropriate term would be “organization of sound.”4 Cage imagines, that in the future, centers of experimental music will be established. In these sectors technology such as oscillators, turntables and generators will be available for the artists.5
In regards to the psychology of indeterminacy, Cage describes how listeners “turn” towards the unintentional. “This turning is psychological and seems at first to be a giving up of everything that belongs to humanity – for a musician, the giving up of music. This psychological turning leads to the world of nature, where, gradually or suddenly, one sees that humanity and nature, not separate, are in this world together; that nothing was lost when everything was given away. In fact, everything is gained. In musical terms, any sounds may occur in any combination and in any continuity.”6 This post-modern shift describes Cage’s efforts to remove the author from the work, thereby empowering indeterminacy as a driving force within the production.

Historically, man’s desire to interact with their environment has continuously manifested, from early primitive ritual to today’s world of cyberspace. Interactive routines continue in order to confirm our existence in everyday life.7 When trying to define the word “interaction”, we find varying interpretations depending on the context of the word. It is used in many disciplines such as philosophy, science, art and media. Interaction is what happens “in between” the communication between different disciplines, cultures and societies. When discussing interaction, is important not to dwell on what is produced on the small-scale, but the properties of what emerges from the interaction within the larger population. In contemporary times, computer technology has combined interactivity to encompass all aspects of contemporary life to include art, media and society.8 Unlike more traditional one-way mediums, such as TV or movies, interactive art allows a binary system to exist.

 This binary system is composed of an exertion from both our physical and mental being. Man’s desire of identity is deeply rooted in the world’s inherent nature of indeterminacy. Mankind seeks to find a satisfying moment by shaping ourselves, based on our uncertain nature.9 Ryu discusses the philosophical methodology of participation:
Just as we look into a mirror to confirm our image, we confirm our living existence through our binary oppositions. These oppositions can be found in any reflected surfaces, such as objects, living beings and intangible forms such as sound and movement. Once we find them, we build the interactive cycle, which is involved with dynamic mental activity, and, sometimes, motivated by a physical response. This process can become true because our body is also a transforming spiritual entity. In this process of becoming, we move our body toward this opposition and then our mind follows in order to become one entity. Playing a musical instrument and performing a puppet creates this gradual dimension shift, from control to interaction, from separation to assimilation, and from physical motivation to spiritual activation. Although the puppet and the puppeteer are not analogous, they are perfectly united by their relationship and interactions. In the end, the puppet becomes the image of the puppeteer and the puppeteer confirms himself.10

Here Ryu explains that by involving ourselves within our environment, these interactions validate our existence. This is expressed by the process of joining our mental and physical states to transform into a spiritual entity. So, where do we see examples of participatory art in the modern digital age? In the next three sections I will be taking a look at three different artists and how their artwork contributes to the new aesthetic of interactive art.

During the summer of 2013 in New York City, during the “Summer Streets” annual celebration, the Park Avenue tunnel was opened to pedestrians for an installation entitled Voice Tunnel. The installation was a large-scale, interactive collaborative work led by Rafael Lozano-Hemmer. The piece consisted of over 300 spotlights that produced a column of light along the walls and ceiling of the tunnel. The process started with a fixture in the middle of the tunnel that would record the voice of a person. That recording was then saved. Subsequent recordings would then cause the recording before that to trigger the adjacent lights till eventually going to the exterior portions of the tunnel. The voice recording would also play through speakers which corresponded with the set of lights that it was traveling to. Each speaker would only play the single recording of each person so that there would be a rippling effect of the sound. The tunnel had 75 separate sets of lights and speakers, which means that any given moment 75 separate recordings of people’s voices were causing the lights to behave in a unique way. Once a single recording would be moved to the end of the tunnel, it would be gone. This installation required custom software, spotlights, computers, amps, microphones and miles of cable.11

Lozano-Hemmer discusses the uniqueness of being able to walk through a city space such as this, “The idea is to create some concert if you will, of voices inside a tunnel but they are not composed they are not pre-recorded. It’s all live it’s all crowd source it’s all whatever people want to say.”12
Lozano-Hemmer explains his thoughts on what light represents to him. He states, “As a Mexican, and I’m interested in the light of choppers looking for Mexicans at the border. I’m interested in the light of interrogation, I’m interested in the light that does not know if it is a particle or a wave. So the violence of light is what I’m attracted to. The project Voice Tunnel is subtle but it does have with it that vibration of the strobe does not have a spiritual experience but more of a sense of a party. All those people talking have a certain cacophony, a very urban experience rendered by the lights.” 13
In the spirit of John Cage’s 4′33″, Lozano-Hemmer says that he wishes not for people to come to the installation to see a show because at a traditional show there is a certain amount of passivity on the audience is part. He wishes for people to come and participate because they are the show, and without them there would be nothing.14

From May to July 2013, the Museum of Modern Art, in New York City, hosted a large-scale environment, created by Random International, entitled Rain Room. Random International is a collaborative group of conceptual artists, computer programmers and engineers which construct site specific installations. Rain room consists of a darkened room in which falling water would pour from the ceiling. The water would selectively stop pouring in an area where a human body was detected. This would offer the visitor the ability of controlling the rain. Rain Room was a carefully manipulated downpour of water that was controlled by an intricate system of water, injection molded tiles, solenoid valves, pressure regulators, custom software, 3D tracking cameras, steel beams, a computerized water management system and a grated floor.15

In a video entitled, In Conversation: Rain Room, Hannes Koch, Director of Random International, discusses the construction of the room, artists’ intent and the effects on its participants. Koch states that the room compels the audience to enter it. He then explains that the viewer gains a sense of empowerment by describing how usually one does not have the ability to control rain but in their room you do. Koch believes that the allure of the installation is that everyone’s experience is different. The dynamic of the room is that it compels the participant to interact in the space in ways that they normally would not, for example, moving slowly or even dancing while controlling their environment with their movements. Koch explains the artists’ intent by wanting to place the audience into an immersive environment where one would lose a sense of time and being while inside the installation. Like many of Cage’s performances, the installation had a definite entry and exit point but the experience between these two points had no determined time nor path.16 By framing the work by the confines of the physical space but allowing the participant the ability to craft their own experience within the art space, I believe that this is the method as which the audience is allowed to be empowered.

Rafaël Rozendaal is an artist who works in many mediums. He has produced digital music, drawings and writings but what I want to focus primarily on his websites. Rozendaal is unique in the sense that some of his artwork exists nowhere but the Internet. He creates interactive abstract works where the viewer is able to interact with his artwork, usually through either mousing over or clicking on his art. When I experienced his works of art for the first time, I found that I was only presented with a website with the art embedded completely within the frame of the window. There were no directions or indications as to how I should interact with the piece. I find that his work has a whimsical yet sophisticated feel to it.17 Rozendaal has several links to these websites embedded on his homepage. Be aware that these pieces of artwork are not embedded into his own website but inhabit their own personal web address. This is important to note because this is how he allows himself to sell his pieces of artwork. By selling the rights to the web address, in effect, he is allowed to give up ownership of that piece of artwork. Rozendaal stipulates in the sale of any of his websites that they will remain public. Collectors only by the rights to the domain name.18

Not only has this new age of electronic interaction given the artist and spectator new ways to interact with the singular art object but there is a paradigm shift in how digital art is being curated. In Jon Ippolito’s essay, Ten Myths of Internet Art, he explains the difficulties that museums and others in the art world are having when deciding how digital art is defined, and at times, misunderstood within the academic art community. Stimulated by ever-growing enthusiasm for the Internet as both a social and economic phenomena, we find an ever growing collection of news articles, scholarly works and museum exhibitions which incorporate new technologies and digital art. Ippolito states that one of the reasons that museum curators are having a hard time adapting to networked culture, are the numerous misconceptions about digital art and its consumers.19

Ippolito discusses that one of the reasons network culture is quickly spreading is because of the individual artists and programmers ability to work autonomously, needing not to rely on “Big science or Big industry”. The message of digital art is just as viable coming from the individual as it is from a corporation or largely funded group. Tools such as View Source, a browser feature that allows anyone to see how a webpage is built and reappropriate the code for their own use, allow the artist not to be bogged down writing code and thus allows the artist to focus on his art. This “DIY: do-it-yourself” philosophy allows the artist to make a difference just by filling the right cultural need through their project. This leveling of the playfield challenges the preset dogma of the artistic elite. 20

Another common misconception that Ippolito discusses, is that web art is confused with digital art. Through the art communities desire to compartmentalize artwork into traditional categories, their attempt to segregate these practices are hindering their progress to understand the digital medium. Internet artists use many ways to present their artwork. Interchangeability of digital format resists categorization. For example, “the transcript of improvisational theater conducted via a chat interface ends up on someone’s Web page as a static text file.”21 It is very easy for one to go online and visit a website of an experienced designer and find dazzling graphics, flash movies and other very impressive works of design but for these websites to qualify as art they must go beyond just visual appeal.22

Finally, Ippolito discusses the myth that Internet art is impossible to collect. One of the biggest obstacles in collecting Internet art is how quickly the platform that the art is designed on becomes obsolete. During the birth of digital art, programing languages, such as DOS and BASIC, were used to produce digital art. These languages are now obsolete, and so the pieces of art that were produced using these languages become inaccessible. Recently, the Guggenheim initiated a program for collecting online art. Alongside collecting traditional painting and sculpture, the Guggenheim has initiated the “Variable Media Initiative”. This project will initiate a method of storing obsolescent and ephemeral technology. Along with the digital files, the Guggenheim compiles information about the artist and a strategy on how to translate the art to new mediums once the current technology becomes obsolete. 23

By discussing artistic elements such as theme, composition and narrative the traditional art world has been able to evaluate how successful an art object is. These traditional methodologies become convoluted in the digital age. Within the realm of participatory digital art, how do we measure how successful a piece of artwork is? Is there a way to measure interactivity in artwork? Showing the spectator’s behavior is a way of quantifying the interactivity between the mediums. “Knowledge discovery” or data mining, when it comes to the information shared between the mediums, give us a reasonable clue to the intrinsic meaning of the interactivity. The common objective of interactivity is to gain truthful feedback and return a suitable communication with the spectator. In this way, a mutual communication is established between the spectators that are interacting and the art object, as if they are both “talking” in a sequence with mutual understanding. Therefore, an understanding of the actual information communicated between the spectator and art object is required for an effective interaction to take place.24

When the artist brings the interface to the level of human interaction, in lieu of using technological devices, this is referred to as “human computing”. In interactive art, the human computing approach can be used as a methodology to evaluate the effectiveness of the communication and be able to figure out the correct meaning of the interaction process to the spectator.
Interactive art that contains artificial intelligence, such as in Rain Room, is able to recognize the spectator’s requirements. A test of relations and data capturing for knowledge discovery provides the solution to the current spectator’s behavior. This allows the spectator to feel in control of the creation of the art itself, and, since it is interactive, the spectator will experience the art on a phenomenological level, receiving the ability to feel the sensation of the art. In this way, the artist can channel the creativity aspect in interactive art to the spectator and create a more personalized viewing experience.

Though, much of the data communicated may not contain reasons for behaving in certain manner, a change of behavior could appear during an interaction simply caused by curiosity or other external factors from the spectator.25 When we evaluate interactive art, or any style of art for that matter, one of the most important factors that we must consider is the level of satisfaction derived by the participant. Within participatory art, generally one of the most important criteria is the level of engagement in the interactive experience. When trying to gauge whether or not a piece of interactive art is a success or a failure, relies on how much information has been communicated through the interaction with the piece of artwork and how meaningful is the feedback to the spectator.”26

The goal of this paper is to argue how participatory art sprang from the movements of artists such as John cage and has evolved into a sophisticated art form which is enhanced by the technology of the day. Through looking at these examples, we can see how the art practices of yesterday are evolving into a new aesthetic. With views on art changing as quickly as the technology around us, I believe that if the art community does not allow itself the ability to adapt to these shifting times, the canon of art history will simply be left with the same old ideas being rehashed, Ad nauseam.

In the immortal words of Robert Zimmerman:
“Come mothers and fathers all over this land
And don't criticize what you can't understand
Your sons and your daughter are beyond your command
Your old role is rapidly aging
Please get out of the new one if you can't lend a hand
For the times they are a changing”

Works Cited:
Cage, John. “Silence: Lectures and Writings”. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 1961. Web.
Chee-Onn, Wong, Jung Keechul, and Yoon Joonsung. "Interactive Art: The Art That Communicates". Leonardo 42.2 (2009): 180-181. Academic Search Complete. Web. 20 Nov. 2013.
Ippolito, Jon. "Ten Myths of Internet Art". Leonardo 35.5 (2002): 485-498. Academic Search Complete. Web. 20 Nov. 2013.
Ryu, Semi. "Ritualizing Interactive Media: From Motivation To Activation". Technoetic Arts: A Journal of Speculative Research 3.2 (2005): 105-123. Academic Search Complete. Web. 20 Nov. 2013.

1 Chee-Onn, Wong, Jung Keechul, and Yoon Joonsung. "Interactive Art: The Art That Communicates." Leonardo 42.2 (2009): 180-181. Academic Search Complete. Web. 20 Nov. 2013, pg. 180.
2 Cage, John. “Silence: Lectures and Writings.” Wesleyan University Press, 1961. pg. 13.
3 Cage, pg. 8.
4 Cage, pg.3.
5 Cage, pg 6.
6 Cage, pg. 8.
7 Ryu, Semi. "Ritualizing Interactive Media: From Motivation To Activation." Technoetic Arts: A Journal of Speculative Research 3.2 (2005): 105-123. Academic Search Complete. Web. 20 Nov. 2013.” pg. 105.
8 Ryu, pg. 106.
9 Ryu, pg. 109
10 Ibid., pg. 110.
19 Ippolito, Jon. "Ten Myths of Internet Art." Leonardo 35.5 (2002): 485-498. Academic Search Complete. Web. 20 Nov. 2013. pg. 485.
20 Ippolito, pg 486.
21 Ippolito, pg.486
22 Ibid., pg.486.
23 Ibid., pg. 487
24 Chee-Onn, et al., pg. 180.
25 Chee-Onn, et al., pg.180.
26 Chee-Onn, et al., pg. 181

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