Interacticipation: Ten Artworks Reflecting the Status of Contemporary Participation in New Media Art

On: February 24, 2011
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About Lotte Woerde
Lotte Woerde graduated as a graphic designer at Willem de Kooning Art Academy and finished her BA in Television Studies at UvA. Since 2005 she is running her own graphic design company, called Lot concept & ontwerp bno, based in Amsterdam. As an independent graphic designer Lotte worked together with creative media companies like Glamcult Studio, Technicolor and NOS. Her area of interest concerns the intersection between new media and design concepts and solutions. Currently she is a MA student of New Media.


Interactive art is a genre of art in which the viewers participate in a way by providing an input in order to determine the outcome (Wikipedia, 2011a). In other words, it allows a dialogue between the artwork and the viewer. Although the history of interactive art goes back to the fifth century B.C. according to the new media artist and theorist Maurice Benayoun, in the advent of computer based interactivity in the 1990’s interactive art became a large phenomenon. Esspecially human-machine interactivity was subject of experiments. Ever since, It is impossible to imagine an contemporary art scape without interactive art.

However, interactivity is a somewhat confusing term. It is often described as a problematic concept or category for art. As Erkki Huhtamo argues in his article Trouble at the Interface, or the Identity Crisis of Interactive Art about classical interactive art like Myron Krueger’s Videoplace: “Of course, the reception of art itself can always be claimed to be ‘active’ (an argument frequently used by traditional art critics in their invectives against interactive art). However, interactive art added to the mental activity a haptic dimension: the visitor was not only allowed, but required to touch the work. The touch – often physical, but sometimes “virtualized”, mediated by a videocamera or a microphone, was essential” (Huhtamo, 2004: 1-2).

Because interactivity as a concept raises questions, we focus in this exhibition on artworks that play with the idea of interactivity and participation and critically reflect on it.

1. Painstation (2001) – Volker Morawe and Tilman Reiff

Painstation is a game created in 2001 by Volker Morawe and Tilman Reiff. It consists a console for two players. The players each hold a joystick with their right hand and place their left hand on a metallic plate that is called the Pain Execution Unit (PEU). As both players have done this, the electronic circuit is closed and then the game can start. The game itself is a ordinary Pong tennis game. The players play it against each other. When one of the two players misses a ball, pain is inflicted on the player’s hand by the PEU. There are three types of pain: electroshocks, heat and the lash of a metallic whip. When someone takes his hand of the PEU the electric circuit is broken and the game ends. The player that endures the pain the longest wins the game (Waelder Laso, 2007: 239).

The game was a great success at several game conferences. Both males and females were displaying their wounds with pride. According to Pau Waelder Laso in his article Games of Pain: Pain as Haptic Stimulation in Computer-Game–Based Media Art “what many players find in these games of pain is what many people in Western society are looking for in more or less sublimated forms: an engaging experience that involves both body and mind, a way to release aggressiveness in a harmless manner, a social intercourse, a chance to demonstrate one’s self-efficacy before others, a different form of competition” (Waelder Laso, 2007: 242).

2. Augmented fish reality (2004) – Ken Rinaldo

Augmented fish reality is an installation of five rolling robotic fish-bowl sculptures. Each of the five is a consisting a Siamese Fighting fish. The sculptures allow the fish to move their bowls, using intelligent hardware and software. It uses four infrared sensors around the bowl that allow the fish to move forward and backward en turn the bowl. Erkki Huhtamo thinks Augmented fish reality is a problematic case of interactive art:

“There are problematic cases, like Ken Rinaldo’s Augmented Fish Reality that received the jury’s distinction. Two Siamese fighting fishes inhabiting separate fish bowls placed on motorized platforms with wheels. By interrupting laser beams crossing the bowls the fishes can “drive” their bowl-worlds around the room. Amazing, but is it interactive art? One might reason that the fishes are surrogates for human interactors, which would qualify the work at least as a “metainteractive” piece” (Huhtamo, 2004: 6).

The art is of course interactive for the fish, but not for humans. They will keep being just the spectators of the artwork. However, the creators claim the sculptures are “designed to explore interspecies and transpecies communication”. If that is enough to call it interactive art, that will always remain questionable.

3. n-cha(n)t (2001) – David Rokeby

n-Cha(n)t is an art installation, created by David Rokeby. In this artwork, computers are communicating with each other. The installation consists seven computers, that run software for voice recognition, free association and language generation. Attached to the computers, tightly focussed microphones listen to the words that people speak in the immediate vicinity. The computers stimulate each other, because they are linked by a network, and the computers speak their stream of associations through the speakers. On the monitors of the computers we see ears. These ears indicate each computer’s state of receptivity. In the absence of outside stimulus, the community of computers finds its way to equilibrium. As Erkki Huhtamo says:

Although these works accept input from human participants, the processes happening internally between the various network ‘nodes’ within these works (in Rinaldo’s case, a flock of robotic creatures able to sense each other’s presence and reactions, as well as to receive stimuli from the outside) are at least as interesting and challenging. (Huhtamo, 2004: 5-6)

Although this installation allows human input, the main interactivity occurs between the computers, in the network.

4. Wooden Mirror (1999) – Daniel Rozin

In the years to come I had an opportunity to experience a whole line-up of ‘interactive’ works (…) As different as these works were, they had things in common: they were publicly exhibited as installations, used computer technology, images and sounds, and were supposed to be ‘activated’ by the user – they required a physical effort from the part of the visitor to function and to reveal their meanings. (Huhtamo, 2004:1)

Similarly as described by Huhtamo, this piece explores the line between digital and physical, using a warm and natural material such as wood to portray the abstract notion of digital pixels. Interactive artist Daniel Rozin works in a very particular artistic field, making mirrors from unreflective organic surfaces. One of his major creations, ‘the wooden mirror’ is a testament to his skill in this area. It consists of 830 square pieces of wood which are hooked up to an equal number of small motors which move the wooden blocks according to a  built in camera. The camera picks up movement in light and somehow transfers the signal to the wood, and the result is an eerie representation of reality depicted in tiny wooden pixels.

Applying this project to the words of Erkki Huhtamo while looking at the aspect of user/viwer interaction with the piece, one could notice that there is an obvious link between it and the concept of different kinds of interacting:

(…) “old school” interactive art has had its day and is in the process of being replaced by something else, the outlines of which we don’t yet quite perceive. If this is so, wouldn’t it be best to give up the label of interactive art altogether – or save it to the “old school” work emphasizing direct active interaction between the user and the piece – and replace it with something else? (Huhtamo, 2004:4)

As the author call to reflect on the definition of interaction, he finally claims the ‘depth’ of the process as central to the discussion:

If the word interactive is to retain anything about its former distinctiveness, it should, perhaps, be after all reserved to cases where active and repeated user-intervention plays a significant role in the functioning of the system (Huhtamo, 2004:6)

Still, the piece created by Rozin could not be more interactive, as the idea of mirroring itself has the potential of reflecting all images from its sorounding, and similarly as described by Huhtamo, it plays a significant role where even the passive viewer is engaged in the artistic process generated by the piece.

(…) it might be suggested that “interactive art” as a category would be reserved for works where the issue of user interaction plays a significant role. Perhaps (…) “Database aesthetics” might be a viable candidate, as it would by-pass the difficulties associated with concepts like user interaction, passive interaction and system interaction (…). (Huhtamo, 2004:7)

5. ACCESS (2003) – Marie Sester

ACCESS lets you track anonymous individuals in public places, by pursuing them with a robotic spotlight and acoustic beam system. It presents control tools generated by surveillance technology combined with the advertising and Hollywood industries, and the internet. It refers to political propoganda and media manipluation.

Beware. Some individuals may not like being monitored.
Beware. Some individuals may love the attention. (Sester, 2003)

It is often described as: scary-fun / obsession-fascination / control-resistance; it is impossible to determine who is actually in control.

Applying this example to the words of Rafael Lozano-Hemmer one could notice an obvious similarity between his relational architecture and the surveillance piece designed by Marie Sester. According to the words of Lozano-Hemmer:

(…) an important aspect of my work in Relational Architecture is to produce a performative context where default buildings may take on temporary specificity and where vampire buildings may decline their role in their established, prevailing identification. The pieces are usually ephemeral interventions designed to establish architectural and social relationships where unpredicted behaviours may emerge. (…) Using projections, robotics, sound, net connections and local sensors, the input and feedback from participants becomes an integral part of the work and the outcome is dictated by their actions. (Lozano-Hemmer, 2002)

As the author gives examples of other of his works, he moves to describing the term “relational”:

I named the series of interventions “relational” in large part because I wanted to avoid using the term “interactive”. This word has become too vague, like “postmodern”, “virtual”, “deconstruction” or other terms that mean too many things and is exhausted. (…) “Relational” has a more horizontal quality, it’s more collective: events happen in fields of activity that may have resonances in several places in the network. (Lozano-Hemmer, 2002)

Given the definition, Lozano-Hemmer carries on to his view on the two inseparable approaches to interaction:

The Italian approach is all about the window onto the world. You have this frame and you step back from the subject, from reality, as though looking through this neutral glass. This formula is what informs humanism and virtuality. (…) The Italian metaphor implies that you can look at a subject objectively, while the Dutch emphasis is on foldings or reflections that are already taking place in our own corporeal space, where perception is an apparatus. The two cannot be clearly separated as I suggest, but the Dutch approach illustrates more clearly my preferred understanding of perception (…). (Lozano-Hemmer, 2002)

As one may easily notice, this specific piece is probably the best example confirming the truth of Lozano-Hemmer’s words. ACCESS is an installation where both the active and passive viewer roles may easily shift, so one becomes the other.  Due to the fact that random users of the Internet trigger this artwork, no one can ever know if he will become the target of the tracking device. It can be also related to the words of Josephine Bosma:

Instead of just reacting or responding to a changing perception of art, artists have started to interfere in the perception process itself by anticipating the audience’s movement. The artist now uses or guides the audience’s movements and is steering its perception and interpretation of the work. (Bosma, 2006: 31-32)

…but in this case the mentioned “anticipation of movement” will be done more directly.

6. Optical Camouflage (2010) – Takayuki Fukatasu

Active camouflage or adaptive camouflage, is a group of camouflage technologies which allow an object to blend into its surroundings by use of panels or coatings capable of altering their appearance, color, luminance and reflective properties. Active camouflage has the capacity to provide perfect concealment from visual detection (Wikipedia, 2011b). Optical Camouflage is a project similar to Invisible Cloak done by the University of Tokyo, but it uses more contemporary Nintendo Kinect body capture technology. This YouTube video is not only as a Kinect hack-performance. It can be seen also as a response to the previously discussed ACCESS installation.

Prototype: M. Inami, D. Sekiguchi, S. Tachi, Le manteau transparent! (Transparent Cloak!), Brochure of Demonstration at Laval Virtual 2003, Laval Virtual 2003, France, May 13-18, 2003, (French Version), (English Version)

7. Interactive Puppeteer (2010) – Emily Gobeille and Theo Watson

This puppeteering piece uses skeleton tracking on an arm to control the movement and posture of the puppet. The authors of this projecthacked the Kinect together in a day’s time using open-source Kinect drivers (which is really awsome!).

This specific piece can be related to the words of Josephine Bosma, where she exposes a similar mechanism of the true power of Internet art, given by bringing the audience and performer closer together:

Internet art is totally dependent on engagement and can only show itself to its full advantage by virtue if the active participant. This type of media artifact has been called ‘pull media’, the opposite of ‘push media’ such as television – a term which illustrates the efforts of the audience in new media environments. Without an audience which adds content, navigates, reacts or accepts an invitation of participation or an invitation to make use of specific work nothing happens, and more importantly, without this there is practically no art experience. By default, through contact with the Internet’s architectures, the audience for art on the Net is brought into a closer relationship to the person and works of the artist, and a step away from the aloofness of the traditional museum (Bosma, 2006: 31).

Even though this presentation of an interactive projected puppet can be seen as a simple play with the device, it opens up a whole new field for interactive play.

8. Pulse Park (2008) – Rafael Lozano-Hammer

Pulse Park is comprised of a matrix of light beams that graze the central oval field of Madison Square Park in New York. Their intensity is entirely modulated by a sensor that measures the heart rate of participants and the resulting effect is the visualization of vital signs, arguably our most symbolic biometric, in an urban scale. The author is very famous for his ‘interactive’ installations in large urban spaces (he prefers to call it ‘relational art’), where he encourages (haptic dimmension is key in his art works) viewers or passer-by’s to finish uncompleted piece of art. The grounding of his work is participation of the public.

The pieces are usually ephemeral interventions designed to establish architectural and social relationships where unpredicted behaviours may emerge […] For me it is a priority to create social experiences rather than to generate collectible objects. The making of a piece itself is closer to developing a performance or a play than a visual artwork (Lozano-Hammer, 2002).

‘To accomplish this we use large-scale technologies of amplification that are usually reserved for publicity stunts and corporate events. These technologies are typically used to perform a pre-programmed commercial monologue, and it is always exciting to exploit them in ways they were not intended. Using projections, robotics, sound, net connections and local sensors, the input and feedback from participants becomes an integral part of the work and the outcome is dictated by their actions’ (Ibid).

In Pulse Park, evening visitors to Madison Square Park have their systolic and diastolic activity measured by a sensor sculpture installed at the North end of the Oval Lawn. These biometric rhythms are translated and projected as pulses of narrow-beam light that will move sequentially down rows of spotlights placed along the perimeter of the lawn as each consecutive participant makes contact with the sensor. The result is a poetic expression of our vital signs, transforming the public space into a fleeting architecture of light and movement.

9. iRiS (Immediate Remote Interaction System) – Alexander Wiethoff

Alexander Wiethoff of the Department for Informatics at LMU Munich has developed with the Univeristy of Saarbrücken a mobile device application that enables a radically new form of interaction with buildings. The design allows people in front of the building to literally paint with light on the façade by using their mobile phones. After loading the mobile phone application, users can select colors and draw over the image of the building shown on their phone’s camera which instantly triggers the lights on the faced to change color.

By combining a recently developed mobile software application with the multimedia facade of the ARS Electronica building […] we developed two prototypes: in the first application, users can paint interactively on the building using touch input on the mobile device. In a second application, users are able to solve a jigsaw puzzle displayed on the facade

As Lozano-Hammer said:

There are two main strategies for collective interactivity. The first one I call “taking turns”. You have one or two sensors and people take turns to use them, and the rest are spectators…. (Lozano-Hammer, 2002).

This is exactly what happens in this work. One takes turns and takes part in artwork production, while the rest are viewers, who also reflect on the work.

10. Hit Counter (2009) – Zach Gage

Hit Counter is at once sophisticated and remarkably simple work. It basic principle is that it shows measurement of the number of times someone has stood in front of the work. Face recognition software is used to keep track of the actual viewers and the number is displayed on an old-fashioned mechanical counter.

For the author viewer’s presence is very important and plays enormous role in finishing the artwork.

Seen in a certain light, the core of technological mediation has always been presence, absence, and distance. Writing established the possibility of presence during absence, arrows and gunpowder created force at a distance, the telephone created presence at distance, and network computing fundamentally altered the nature of being “absent” or “present” to an almost unrecognizable degree (Noble, 2011).

And this present is viewer’s ‘task’, which finishes the artwork. This artwork would of course exist without people participating in it, however would it be finished work?

Depending on public  participation is a humbling affair because the work will not exist without the main protagonist, which is the public as actor (Lozano-Hammer, 2002).


Nicolas Bourriaud, Relational Aesthetics, trans. Simon Pleasance & Fronza Woods, Paris: Les presses du réel, 2002, pp. 11-24, 86-105.
Félix Guattari, ‘Machinic Hetereogenesis’, in Chaosmosis: An Ethico-Aesthetic Paradigm, trans. Paul Bains and Julian Pefanis, Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1992, pp. 33-57.
Erkki Huhtamo, ‘Trouble at the Interface, or the Identity Crisis of Interactive Art’, Framework: The Finnish Art Review 2 (2004): pp. 38-41.
Josephine Bosma, ‘Meet the Active Audience’, in Tom Corby (ed.) Network Art:Practices and Positions, London: Routledge, 2006, pp. 24-39.
Mary Flanagan, Critical Play: Radical Game Design, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2009, pp. 1-15, 223-249.
Joshua Noble, ‘Interview with Zach Gage, in Rhizome, 16.02.2011 available at
Chris Salter, Entangled: Technology and the Transformation of Performance, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2010, pp. xx-xxxix.
Waelder Laso, Pau. ‘Games of Pain: Pain as Haptic Stimulation in Computer-Game-Based Media Art’. Leonardo. Vol. 40, Nr. 3, The MIT Press June 2007, pp. 238-242.
Rafael Lozano-Hemmer, ‘Alien Relationships with Public Space’, in Joke Brouwer and Arjen Mulder (eds) TransUrbanism, Rotterdam: NAi Publishers, 2002, pp. 139-159.
Brian Massumi, ‘The Thinking-Feeling of What Happens: A Semblance of a Conversation’, Inflexions 1.1 “How is Research-Creation?” (May 2008),
Wikipedia (2011a). “Interactive art” (accessed february 23, 2011)
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