Participatory Media Art

On: March 5, 2012
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About Renoud Netjes
After graduated from both mediadesign and interactive media, I was trained to see the virtual as a place with huge advertising opportunities. Now I no longer try to see the virtual world only from this marketing perspective. Interested in innovation, the promises of new media and what they are or could mean in modern society.


This is a report of the session on participatory art held on February 28, 2012 from 9 to 11 AM in Amsterdam. The session was organised as part of a course called Critical Media Art, itself part of the University of Amsterdam New Media MA programme. The session was split up into three parts. First, the work on participatory art from five authors was summarized to provide the group with different points of view on the issue. Subsequently, five artworks were introduced to illustrate the points made by the authors. Then, the group was divided into five smaller groups. Using workstations set up in the session room, the groups analyzed the artworks mentioned, thereby also criticizing one of the author’s views on participatory media. Finally, the smaller groups joined in for a final discussion, talking through the participant’s analyses of the artworks. Following the two-hour session in Amsterdam, the group spent the rest of the day in the V2 Institute for the Unstable Media and the TENT and Witte de With exhibition spaces, all located in Rotterdam.

Curatorial Statement

The central issue in this collection is the role of the audience in participatory art. The audience may be perceived as an essential part in the creation or finalization of the artwork (Bosma 2006), or may be seen as mere spectators of a finished piece. Some argue that all art as a can no longer be perceived as being an integral whole, arguing that its meaning is essentially social or relational (Bourriaud 1998, 2002). Others stick with art forms where physical interaction is necessary to get a work of art to show what it does or means (Huhtamo 2004). Some try to work around the issue of participation by making a distinction between different ways of interpreting interactivity (Lozano-Hemmer 2002], or by asking which forms of participation may be seen as artistic, and which may not (Massumi 2011). In the current collection, five works have assembled that embody these different ways of looking at the central issue.

Around the turn of the millennium, French curator and art critic Nicholas Bourriaud raised the issue of participatory art by stating that art could no longer be seen as a single unit critiquing the status quo by referring to a Utopian condition in some other place and time, which, according to him, art had been doing since the early Enlightenment (1998, 2002). Instead, art makes visible alternative ways of living in the existing real, in the here and now. It does so by creating a space and time (the public space where art is encountered) that is structured in an unusual way – on a different rhythm, to use his words – encouraging social interactions that would normally be restricted by everyday life, where social interactions have no meaning outside their functional, capitalist context. An artwork is a collection of forms, and needs to be ‘glued’ together to form a meaningful whole. This glue has come to consist of the audience’s encounter. According to Bourriaud, art is created relationally, depending on the relation the audience has to the forms used by the artist, and on the status of audience’s social relations art reveals.

Josephine Bosma states that in contemporary western culture, our lives are constantly mediated in digital environments. The shift towards these digitally orientated networks has gave way to a  new form of art. This new environment has caused a change in the the relation between artists and audience. To operate inside these networks, one is stimulated to be actively participating. Art inside this new environment has therefore shifted from to be merely interpreted to be actively participated in. The artists, on the other hand can anticipate on the participation of the audience. In fact, the artist makes the process of the production of an artwork visible. The artwork is not designed to possess independent meaning. Instead, meaning is generated in the moments of interaction.

Rafael Lozano-Hemmer is using the public environment as part of his artworks. He grouped his large scale projects under the name Relational Architecture. According to Lozano-Hemmer, a building has a general function; but by combining artworks with those buildings, and re-create the purpose of the building, the building is an essential part of the artwork itself. Lozano-Hemmer  “attempts to introduce ‘alien memory’ as an urban catalyst” through his artwork. Lozano-Hemmer uses the word Relational instead of interactive, describing how the latter term has become a vague term and is exhausted.
Another feature of Lozano-Hemmer’s work is the role of the audience in the artwork. All different artworks have in some way an interactive aspect, so the audience is able to interact and participate with the artwork. Lozano-Hemmer states: “People are not innocent when they activate interactive works in a public space, and this already constitutes a certain ground for reflection”.

Huhtamo discusses changing definitions and how the term ‘interactive art’ has come to be used in relation to works which in fact may not actually be termed ‘interactive art’. He puts forth that the element of active ‘user interaction’ may be assigned as a mandatory aspect of an art work in order to be able to categorize it as ‘interactive art’. Through arguing this he aims to outline the blurry edges between various terms, forms and categorizations of art where he puts forth that the term ‘interactivity’ which is inherent to such participatory artworks is being redefined through newly emerging forms of such artworks. Through the example of the ‘Listening Post’ project by Ben Rubin and Mark Hansen presented at the ‘Ars Electronica’, he highlights how these discrepancies call for the creation of new categorizations of art. He puts forth ‘Database Aesthetics’ as an alternative term with which to address artworks that exhibit new qualities such as ‘passive interaction’ on part of the audience. In these instances, although the work is inherently interactive, subjects are unaware that they are participating as was the case in the ‘listening post’ as well as the work ‘God’s Browser’ which shall be further discussed within section 3.5.

Massumi approaches the issue of ‘interactive art’ from the angle of perception and the lived relation between the audience and an interactive work of art. Speaking in terms of perception, Massumi argues that the issue of ‘form’ is extremely problematic especially when discussed in relation to such interactive artworks as discussed above. When discussing ‘form’ in terms of traditional artworks such as a painting, he puts forth how one’s perception of such an artwork is shaped not merely by pure ‘physical form’ or more intricate structures pertaining to ‘form’. Instead Massumi stresses that perceptions of artworks are inextricably linked ‘lived experience’ and the ‘potentials’ that arise when one views such an artwork. In explaining this he puts forth how something as simple as a decorative motif that depicts some sort of movement such as a ‘spiral’ is in fact not a spiral however one’s perception of such a depiction is shaped by lived experience. When Massumi deconstructs interactive artworks in these terms he puts forth that such works that function of the basis of action-reaction may be reduced to the realm of ‘gaming’ rather than ‘art’. It is the inherent functionality or reliance of interactive artworks on some form of ‘action’ on part of a human subject that decreases its value as an artwork. As soon as the action has been performed and the result made visible, such a work loses its value as ‘art’ due to the ‘potentials’ having been carried out upon which such a work becomes boring. As he states, ‘once you get the trick, it becomes boring’.

Collection & discussion

In the session last Wednesday the 29 February, we exposed the five different artworks, all with different ways and roles of the audience in relation to participation in the artwork. The different artworks weren’t physically available in the lecture room, but the students were able to view a visual representation or registration of the works on different computers in the room . Every artwork was introduced in relation to the readings of this weeks session, and we asked the students to watch and interpret the artworks in groups, and to answer a question posed by us. Using the answers on the different questions, we discussed the visions of the main theorists in relation to both the central issue of this weeks session, and the artwork itself. The artworks, and the discussion they provoked, are summarized below.

2.1 VB61, Still Death! Darfur Still Deaf? (2007) – Vanessa Beecroft

The first artwork was VB61 (Still Death! Darfur Still Deaf?) by Vanessa Beecroft, a performance on June 7, 2007 in Venice, Italy. The three-hour performance consisted of about twenty actors lying motionless on a square piece of fabric, while Beecroft continually poured small amounts of fake blood over them. The initial reaction to the Bourriaud-influenced question to what extent the audience had been a crucial part of the artwork was that it didn’t contribute a lot, if anything, to the artwork – it just seemed to stand and watch. The subsequent discussion revealed that these answers were provided on the assumption that participation equals physical interactivity, while Bourriaud stresses the relational rather than the interactive. Some participants, however, remained critical of Bourriauds ideas.

2.2 L.A.S.E.R. Tag (2007) – Graffiti Research Lab

Our second artwork is specifically chosen to point out arguments made by Josephine Bosma. Bosma shows how an artwork generates it’s meaning from the moments of interaction with the audience, as well as the ability for an artist to make the process of creating, or the ‘inner workings’ of the the artwork visible.

The art project L.A.S.E.R. Tag (2007) by the Graffiti Research Lab is an interactive artwork where the audience is allowed to digitally paint graffiti on urban landscape, using powerful beamers. The interaction and participation works on different levels. On the one hand, in the installation as such, the input of the audience is needed in order to generate image. In other words, someone has to take the laser pen and paint on a building for others to see the artwork and their workings. On another level, the artwork is completely open source. This shows Bosma’s argument as she states that artists make the process of creating the artwork visible. It even goes beyond that as in letting the public actively participate in the outcome of the artwork by writing their own code. In the discussion we went deeper in to the fact that for this artwork to work it is dependent on the combination of both artist and audience. They are both responsible in giving shape to the artwork.

2.3 Pulse Park [Relational Architecture #14] (2008) – Rafael Lozano-Hemmer

One of the readings for this session is an interview with Rafael Lozano-Hemmer by V2_. A characteristic feature of Lozano-Hemmer’s work is the use of buildings, architecture and public space, Lozano-Hemmer tries them to pretend to be something other than themselves.

The third artwork in our ‘exhibition’ is Pulse Park by Lozano-Hemmer, whereby a park in New York City contained 200 lighting fixtures, pulsing by the rhythms of peoples heart beat, while holding on to the sensors. If no one is holding the sensors, the 200 fixtures will pulse the last 200 heartbeats individually. The question posed by us was about the transformation of the audience’s experience of public space. According to some students, the public space is getting more personal for the audience, as they experience their own heartbeat visualized. In this way, they become aware of themselves. Other students state that they are not sure if people reflect on the public space itself, but that the audience reflect along themselves by looking to the heartbeat. For all students it’s clear that the park is still a park, but also gets another function as an artwork

2.4 God’s Browser (2010) – Geert Mul

This artwork ‘God’s Browser’ reflects the issues raised by Huhtamo in terms of the extent to which active audience participation is a variable. ‘God’s Browser’ is a generative interactive installation built by installation artist Geert Mul. In this installation Mul produced software that extracts thousands of images from the Internet and constructs them into a sequence so as to create a short film. This short film may be influenced by the audience through means of interaction with a Theremin that allows one to control the speed/structure by which the images are displayed where moving closer increases the speed of the image sequence and vice versa. In displaying this artwork we posed the question, ‘Does the extent of interaction in the artwork ‘God’s browser’ constitute ‘interactive art’?’ The discussion generated through this question concluded that it is in fact interactive on the basis of one’s interaction with the Theremin however simultaneously elusive considering the selection of images is generated through an algorithm that also pairs similar musical notes and images.

2.5 Daisies 2.0 (2005) – Theo Watson

In this artwork produced by Theo Watson, an algorithm produces virtual daisies projected onto the ground. When one walks over the daisies they disappear upon which they regenerate as soon as the path is cleared. This installation reflects some of the arguments made by Massumi in terms ‘value’, ‘form’ and ‘action-reaction’. Where Massumi argues that certain interactive artworks lend themselves more to ‘gaming’ rather than actual ‘art’, this installation reflects this interpretation of interactive art. Upon viewing this work we posed the question, ‘Is Watson’s work an interactive work of art? Or is it just a game?’ Within the subsequent discussion it became clear that the issues raised by Massumi were reflected within the responses. Where Massumi puts forth that once the ‘action’ within an interactive work has been carried out and the ‘potentials’ have been revealed i.e. ‘the trick’, it becomes boring and loses its ‘value’ as a work of ‘art’.


It showed that terminology as ‘participation’ and ‘interactive’ are interpreted in more than one way. Where in Bourriaud’s vision, the audience does not have to be actively interacting with an artwork to be part of the artwork, in Bosma’s vision new forms of art only create meaning by interaction. Lozano-Hemmer’s work shows us a combination of the possibility of incorporating passive and active audience inside an art project. Also, the degree of interaction is being criticised. Both Huhtamo and Massumi have a critical view on the interactivity inside art. Huhtamo is concerned with the degree of concious interaction with an art object, and Massumi is focussing more on the actual interaction.

– Philip Breek, Joep Hegger, Maarten Jansen, Renoud Netjes

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