Sunday, 7 June 2009

Interactive Art

Balls are pretty interactive things aren’t they? Many of us spend a substantial amount of time interacting with balls of different kinds – mostly through games and sports and frequently with the participation of other people. We kick them around, bounce them on the ground and other surfaces, catch them, chase after them and generally attempt to predict and control their complex motions and interactions. Is this really interaction though, and are these balls really acting “with” us or simply reacting to our physical input or will, as Kaspar Hauser’s benefactor would have it (see previous blog entry: "Ein Kluges Apfelchen")?

There seems to be a lot of debate at the moment (for obvious reasons) about what actually constitutes interactivity and many theories emphasise the evolving nature of the term in relation to the increasing sophistication of technology. Human to human interactivity seems to be the easiest aspect to define and is certainly the most sophisticated and familiar form of interaction we experience on a day to day level. I would argue that it’s also the measure by which we gauge all other interactions. Interestingly though, if we take this as the benchmark, every other kind of interaction simply pales by comparison.

Above all else, human interaction involves intelligence. This highly developed ability, even in young infants (and animals for that matter), facilitates levels of interaction which can only be dreamed of in the most sophisticated computer games. This doesn’t make computer games any less engaging nor does it diminish the value of ball games, but as a way to think about it from a different point of view let’s reverse the situation for a moment: imagine a ball starts to play with us. This would be great wouldn’t it? Perhaps not though – maybe the ball wouldn’t be clever or skilful enough and we’d loose interest or perhaps it would be far better than us and we’d become frustrated by our lack of ability. It’s quite clear therefore that there needs to be a certain equilibrium and reciprocity to maintain our engagement and understanding of what’s going on. This has nothing to do with technical expertise but rather with intelligence: our ability to anticipate and to strategise, to challenge and be challenged by our opponent. This is what makes play “interesting” and it’s also why we quickly become bored whilst playing games on our own, no matter what the level of technical challenge.

So what does this mean for interactive art or more specifically, what does this mean for digital interactive art?

Much of what passes for digital interactive art is actually little more interactive than a ball game: you click the mouse and something changes, you move across a room and a video plays or something revolves, or rises and falls or a light switches on or off. This is not to say that the associated artwork cannot be edifying, enlightening or inspiring but this significance invariably has precious little to do with interactivity as such.

This is the challenge - because without intelligence dynamically feeding it, digital interactive art will always be little more than a novelty in terms of its interactive capabilities. As ever “content”, rather than the means of delivery is paramount. I don’t doubt for a moment that the relationship between content and form is a highly complex one (far too complex for discussion here) but if digital interactive art is to genuinely engage us, then it needs to construct it’s significance out of something quite different than interactivity alone.


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