How Does Interactive Art Create Meaning?

New Media

August 15, 2016

What do you think of when you hear about interactive art – does the meaning of the term seem obvious? It’s definitely art, and it involves some kind of interaction. Still, the problem with these forms of art that neither belong to historical periods, nor do they involve a clear selection of media, is that their practitioners are sometimes at pains to locate their works within the context of art. As it turns out, ironically, the more art grows and redefines itself, the vaguer its definition becomes. This is what makes people question contemporary art from time to time, especially when it rises above conventional art forms and relies on the audience to follow up. It is precisely this confidence in human response that lies at the core of interactive art.

Design of the light in the room using high tech best depicts the use of video in this light design installation for the publicand visitors of the biennale
Hito Steyerl, Factory of the Sun, 2015, installation view, German Pavilion, La Biennale di Venezia 2015. Photo by Manuel Reinartz.

What Is Interactive Art

In interactive art, it is presumed that the viewers will no longer be passive onlookers, and that they will be the ones to complete the purpose of an artwork or to participate in its realization. On some occasions, this can be taken literally, and the audience might be expected to get involved in the actual physical creation of an artwork. Otherwise all interactive art invites the audience to take part in a sort of "non-scripted play" by implementing the missing piece, derived from the sphere of social interaction, into the predesigned context. In practice, this means that an artwork is deliberately left open-ended to a certain extent, so that the anticipated range of events and actions may happen and finalize the piece. Again, although these types of art sometimes borrow their character from theater and film, they go beyond spectacle as they always include the element of the real – real audience, with real, spontaneous reactions.

The design of the installation allows visitors to interact with a video in one room
Liam Gillick - Two Short Plays

Installations That Are Interactive, and Those That Are Autonomous

But if a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound? Or in other words, isn't all art dependent on its audience? There are many types of art installations and happenings that we tend to classify as interactive art, and it is sometimes hard to draw a line between art that is formulated as interactive, and art that is simply left open to various interpretations. This confusion might get even greater when it comes to artworks that appear as finished pieces of art, but are nonetheless designed to be used by the audience in certain ways. This is a common occurrence in installation art, when the exhibition space is transformed in a distinctive manner, but it does not only aim to be physically appealing or intriguing, and it seeks for people's interference instead. For example, walking around or through an Anish Kapoor sculpture does include human interaction, but people themselves are not crucial for the concept, except maybe as a point of reference to demonstrate the scale.

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On the other hand, Rirkrit Tiravanija creates installations that would not be complete without the physical presence of people[1], doing what they think is right doing in the situations that they're virtually put in by the artist. Tiravanija invents surroundings that take up the exhibition space but look like they are taken from everyday life and quite often they truly are. Their purpose is to serve as mediators between the audience and the artist, or between the spectators internally - two of his most famous installations involved the artist cooking for the museumgoers (which he does repetitively), and the spectators being able to sleep, eat or bathe in a reconstruction of the artist's apartment. As opposed to Kapoor, Tiravanija only uses material objects as an interface for social connection. For Kapoor, the form and the space are the central motives by themselves.


Creating Art Together

Tiravanija's work may be an extreme example as it is also an archetype for Relational art, which by definition differs from other interactive art because of its ability to elude the visual contemplation entirely, and to produce the conditions that create human relations as the main point of the artwork itself. Therefore, even though its general definition is to favor use over contemplation, interactive art is a term that can be applied to art forms that are far less intellectually ambitious as concepts, meaning that it can also simply require people to stand in certain places in order to contemplate the work of art, or to press buttons, pull blocks, in order to make things "work". Quite often, the audience will be responsible for the aesthetics of a piece as well. One of the pioneers of such approach is Roy Ascott, whose change-paintings from the 60's gave absolute freedom to the spectators to immerse themselves into the creative process. They were able to alter the appearance of images by sliding the existing elements and thus constantly changing the configuration as a whole. As of that moment, creatives have been using the techniques of interactive and participatory art for realization of socially-engaged projects, political performances, conceptual artworks, etc.[2]

Artists and visitors of best exhibitions which use light - digital or high tech - can teach the public about best video design - without using any video material at all
Roy Ascott's Change Painting from 1961

Interactive Art and Technology

The ways in which we engage with each other began to change in the 90's, and our communication was getting generally channeled through technology. The presence of the third "being" - the computer, in any sense of that word - has made a significant impact on our lives and on art as well. It has brought new ways for achieving interaction, but on the other hand, the proxy has presented itself as an equally good and bad mediator. Virtual space lends itself to art nowadays, helping new forms of interactive art to emerge. Roy Ascott was one of the pioneers in this regard as well, with his speculation and examination of the term Telematic, which he uses to designate the "computer-mediated communications networking between geographically dispersed individuals and institutions . . . and between the human mind and artificial systems of intelligence and perception"[3]. As this field of research is still expanding, the number of Internet based art projects and online curated shows continues to grow and expand the horizons of what we thought we knew. Whether in service of political/social engagement or merely as a fascination with the possibilities offered by technology, online curating and Internet art seem to make a great deal of interactive art today. However, since we've already entered the phase of a "cool down" when it comes to the Internet, we can only wait for the next forms of interactivity to emerge.


  1. Dezeuze, Anna. The 'do-it-yourself' Artwork: Participation from Fluxus to New Media. Manchester, UK: Manchester UP, 2010. Print.
  3. Aerts, Diederik, Ernest Mathijs, and Bert Mosselmans. Science and Art: The Red Book of 'Einstein Meets Magritte' Belgium: VUB UP, 1999. Print.

Featured images: Tomas Saraceno - Observatory, Air-Port-City, 2008; Marina Abramovic - The Artist Is Present; Kimchi and Chips - Link. All images used for illustrative purposes only.

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