September 4, 2008

Interaction, Interactivity, Interactive Art

by Noah Wardrip-Fruin · , 1:14 am
Ars Electronica Festival 2008

I’m in Linz, Austria for the Ars Electronica Festival — and later today I’ll be speaking at the festival’s first conference: “Interaction, Interactivity, Interactive Art – a buzzword of new media under scrutiny.” I’ll try to blog what I can, updating this post as we go along. The conference is organized by the Ludwig Boltzmann Insitute for Media.Art.Research with intellectual leadership from Katja Kwastek and institute director Dieter Daniels.

The conference is broken into three sections. The first is titled “Interactive Art – with and without media” and includes Christiane Paul (Whitney Museum), Lars Blunck (Technical University Berlin), and Suzanne Lacy (Otis College of Art and Design). Right now the introductions are happening. Dieter Daniels is explaining that the Boltzmann Insitute is engaged with history, including pre- and non-digital history, as opposed to Ars Electronica’s focus on what is happening “right now” at the time of each festival.

Next, Katja Kwastek (who I know from her time visiting RISD) is introducing the way that interactive art is being questioned both by mainstream art communities (e.g., art history) and the media art community — perhaps, in part, because “interaction” has so many valences in this context: technical, sociological, political, as well as artistic. Today’s conference brings together a range of perspectives. She’s now bringing together a variety of strands — from people like Doug Engelbart and Allan Kaprow to projects like Glowflow and Senster. She points out how the keyword “interactive” is actually one that Ars Electronica helped establish for work that previously was called “participatory,” “cybernetic,” “man-machine,” and so on.

The first panel is now getting underway. Christiane Paul is the first speaker, and she’s talking about models of interaction in new media art, with a particular emphasis on virtuality and embodiment. She surveyed some definitions of embodiment from the last century and noticed an increasing shift toward human-computer interaction — interaction happening through human-designed interfaces. Connecting back to earlier art, a diagram with work flowing from “Post-Dada,” “Post Art Social,” “Post Bauhaus,” and “Post Modernism” — expanding frameworks of people like Popper, Ascott, Cornock and Edmonds, Bell (using diagrams from the dissertation of someone whose name I didn’t catch). Looking deeper at Myron Krueger’s 1977 writing about Glowflow. A very similar conception to Chris Crawford’s of interaction as conversation. But, of course, Krueger was interested in working in a full-body medium. (It looks like I’m going to run out of battery before this panel is even done.)

Christiane has a set of degrees of openness: navigation (database), audience contribution, data visualizations and filters of ongoing systems (e.g., Warren Sack’s Conversation Map), generative projects activated by audience, system interaction (e.g., software nodes communicating across networks, interacting with each other), and reconfigurable frameworks (open source software, game engines). Next, body as interface — a variety of examples (e.g., Text Rain, Snibbe’s Chien, Ephemere, Screen, SVEN) and through to connections between bodies ( and avatar bodies (Eva and Franco Mattes’s performances in Second Life, reenacting famous bodily performance works). Now connecting this to Web 2.0 and the way artists have engaged (e.g., The Sheep Market) and the User Labor Markup Language.

Having shown a light on a variety of different models, Christiane opens up to conversation. But I’m out of battery. I’ll be back when I can…

Unfortunately, it turned out that our conference venue had almost no audience-accessible power outlets. I wasn’t able to get one.

You’ll just have to take my word for it that the rest of the conference continued to be a smashing success. I thought a whole day about conceptions of interactivity might get repetitive. But, actually, the organizers selected a group that was wide-ranging, so largely non-overlapping, but that still felt coherent. Remarkably done. Someone (not me) should edit the gathering into a book!

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