Why this article?

I’ve recently completed two successful art projects that require the audience’s participation to work. In trying to explain what I’d done I wasn’t sure if I should call it digital art, interactive art, media art… I did a bit of reading and decided Interactive Art is a suitable term. I then became interested in how it relates to Interaction Design (which I am more familiar with).

“Interactive art describes art that relies on the participation of a spectator” to achieve its purpose. (Tate)

What forms of interaction have artists experimented with?

Audiences may be able to participate by:

  • Navigating through the artwork in some way,
  • Assembling or making something,
  • Providing inputs such as body movement, breath, sounds or button presses, and
  • many other…

Some cool examples:


So the artwork itself is created dynamically, in the moment?

Interactive art provides ways for users to input/participate (eg interfaces or sensors), and often uses electronics or computers to create a response. The art itself, and meaning, is created in the moment, through the interaction between the artist’s ‘machine’ and participant. The artwork is a product of the interaction, and therefore is often dynamic, or changing.

Inertia by Clinton Freeman (2018) “invites audiences to engage with a room full of interactive light spheres – actively altering the experience and outcome for those around them. When interacted, the spheres glow brightly. When left alone, the spheres glow dimly. Inertia hints at interactions within a wider community, and how, through collective effort, communities become vibrant places.” (CoCA, Cairns)

Inertia Clinton Freeman 2018
Inertia by Clinton Freeman. Image credit – Kickarts (link)

Interacting with Inertia alone was fun. When others arrived we soon started hurling spheres across the room, playing catch without ever verbally agreeing to do so. The interaction and experience changed, from being a solitary exploration to a vibrant collective activity.


How do audiences know how to participate in interactive art?

For interactive art to work it must include signifiers, or indicators, of appropriate or required interactions. Donald Norman, one of the world’s most influential designers, has written in detail on the topic of signifiers (mostly in the context of interaction design for physical and digital products). In short, a lever indicates pulling, a ball indicates kicking or rolling, a large ball may also indicate sitting, a switch indicates flicking, red is stop, green is go. A signifier must be relevant to the intended user of the object or art – it’s only useful if the user is familiar with what the object they see signifies to them.


Beyond Cosmetics?

Interactive art often engages multiple senses (sight, hearing etc), because it involves more than just looking at something static.

Video: Pann V, Connected Heartbeats

In his paper Beyond Cosmetics (2006), Prof. Hartmut Ginnow-Merkert, a retired German Industrial Designer, Teacher and Researcher, outlined a framework for designing for five senses. As with signifiers, I think there’s a clear connection/similarity between interaction design and interactive art.


Another cool example?

I particularly like Yoko Ono’s Mend Piece (1966). The audience is presented with shattered ceramic items and asked to repair them with string, tape and glue. Through this interaction she aims to increase the sense of care in and for the world. It’s fantastic.


Two things I realise now:

  1. Interactive art involves the design of experiences.
  2. The ideas in this post are still cooking.


Those projects I referred to earlier are Laser Cats (three repurrposed cat t-shirts I turned into a series of framed interactive art pieces) and Persistence (a geo-location-based choose-your-own-adventure experience aligned with the 2018 Commonwealth Games; developed and delivered with Clinton Freeman and Kickarts Contemporary Arts, and generously supported by Cairns Regional Council and Queensland Government, through Regional Arts Development Fund (RADF)).

Header image: Everbright by Hero Design

One thought on “What is Interactive Art?

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