An Invitation to Interactive Art

Itsuo Sakane

Welcome to the world of interactive art!
If this is your first experience with interactive art, we want to say plunge right in. Touch the works on display. Use your body. Enjoy interacting with the art.
Those of you who came to The Interaction '95 last year enjoyed a wide variety of remarkable events. You made music with your bodies. You drew artificial life forms and saw them swimming in water. You talked with the image of a beautiful woman. The interactive art you will experience this year is even more startling.*1
The first thing you will notice about this year's displays is how the range of subjects and themes in interactive art has grown. There are works in which you can expand your perspective to interact with a world as wide as outer space. There are others that take you to realms of more subtle responses of the human senses. Some even let you participate tactilely. There are works invoking metaphorical meaning and meditation by means of time-space relativity, or an association between image and language.
All over the world, new interactive art is being created. This cuts across such conventional art genres as performance, music, environmental sculpture, and public art. These new art forms synergetically combine image, sound, text, architectural space and the human body in a multimedia art that offers a comprehensive, total body experience.
Where, then, in the long history of humanity did interactive art originate? And where is it going? What meaning does it have in the culture produced by human creative behavior? Turning back for a second look at Interaction '95, let us consider those questions.

The History and Genealogy of Interactive Art

In a narrow sense, interactive art was born when the computer made possible a new type of art in which the audience could participate. It began attracting attention in the late '70s and early '80s. The computer's ability to perform calculations at high speed made it possible to create interfaces that link the human body or motion of the hands and feet to the images and sounds used in the work of art. Toward the end of the '60s, artists and media technicians had already begun to experiment with using these capabilities to create interactive works.
If, however, we re-examine the creative behavior of artists themselves, we find that works of art emerge from a dialogue between artist and subject. When the finished work is put on display, members of the audience exercise their own power of imagination to absorb the meaning and emotion it conveys. In this broad sense, all art assumes interaction. In old, medieval paintings, for example, we find examples of illusion and hidden meanings that can only be understood if the viewer actively works at deciphering them. In creating these works, the artist often began with his own fascination with such devices while remaining conscious of his audience. In this century, the works of Magritte and Escher arouse interest by posing puzzles to those who view them. In their use of metaphors to evoke a rich internal dialogue, they resemble contemporary conceptual art. In a broad sense, they, too, are interactive art.
According to Regina Cornwell, a media art critic who lives in New York, the roots of interactive art can be traced to the works of Marcel Duchamp in the '20s and '30s and to happening art in the '50s and '60s. Of course, in tracing the roots of interactive art, which invites viewers to use their own subjectivity, we cannot overlook the new art movements that emerged in the '50s to challenge traditional authoritarianism of art by involving and, thus, ceding power to the audience. In the '60s, when Macluhanism was in full flower and people had begun to recognize the new power of the media, new hope emerged that through participation we might rediscover the world for ourselves through our own senses. Revolutionary new forms of participation were seen in science displays and art museums, where, traditionally, exhibits had been locked in glass cases and could only be viewed . Now value was placed on the audience's ability to interact more freely with the exhibits and rediscover the world for themselves. This movement, too, may have helped to propel the emergence of interactive art.

The Game-Like Qualities of Interactive Art

Because the work only becomes meaningful through free participation by its audience, the value of the work and the artist's authority may be obscured. The charisma associated with classical forms of art tends to be lost. Since the work is enjoyed in a manner similar to enjoying a game, the artist's presence is hidden and does not draw attention.
There are several similarities between interactive art and games. In the case of interactive art in the narrow sense, the art that blossomed in the '80s by combining computer and interface can be said to be the direct offspring of new media technology made possible by the computer's appearance. According to Cornwell's comment on history, we find that during the '60s, the military supported the development of advanced computer technology, creating an environment in which hackers, following their own curiosity, first developed time-sharing and then personal computer technology. Then, they developed video games, further expanding the possibilities for participation and thereby created the roots of interactive art. Art and the games were siblings. Cornwell notes, however, that even though they share common ancestors, the objectives and values embodied in interactive art, which were born of a liberated consciousness, are clearly different from those of the current video games, whose values are based on the marketplace. In the way that they attack their objectives, making struggle, victory and success their pattern, video games have developed in ways that directly show their military origins. In contrast, interactive art aims to free the imagination of its audience by providing an infinite number of ways to participate. This is its greatest difference. More than battle games, interactive art resembles games in which the objective is self-discovery. They show a creative spirit, such as that of the LOGO language invented by MIT's Seymour Papert: a spirit which allows children to discover their own powers as they learn about computers through play. In this respect, says Cornwell, interactive art is a nearly ideal form of education. *2
Of the works on display at this exhibition, many offer the same kind of enjoyment as games. SimTunes, created by IAMAS' artist-in-residence Toshio Iwai, was released late last year by an American company. It is, indeed, a game released on CD-ROM. It is, however, totally different from the usual shoot-'em -up game. It is a game that allows its players to create an infinite amount of new music, expressing their own personalities. In this respect it is quite similar to interactive art.

Progress in Interactive Art

As described here, interactive art in the narrow sense depends to a greater or lesser extent on computers and interfaces. Thus, the progress in digital technologies on which it is based cannot be neglected. By using digital databases, the same work can be brought to life in many different media. For example, Portrait One by Canadian artist Luc Courchesne was shown as an installation at The Interaction '95. It is now a CD-ROM. Works by interactive art pioneer Jeffrey Shaw clearly show this same evolutionary process. In 1989, when the exhibition "Introduction to Interactive Art", sponsored by Kanagawa Prefecture was held at Kawasaki City's Kanagawa Science Park, Jeffrey showed a new work called Alice's Rooms.*3 I was the curator of the exhibition. Jeffrey and I collaborated, using the same concept in one of Alice's Rooms, which seemed to grow larger as you entered it. We used a two line poem by the poet Shuntaro Tanikawa, written in large characters across two walls of the room. This poem, "喜びの杖のひとふりで現れる君だけの部屋/星雲の渦中に君の永遠の座標をさがせ" (With a stroke of the joyful stick, Appears your own personal chamber/ Within a vortex of the Galaxy, Discover the eternal coordinate of your own") was stored in a database and subsequently used in several other works as well. Finally, it also appeared in The Virtual Museum. The principle of the rotating table used in Alice's Rooms in 1989 was later used for the rotating stage in The Virtual Museum and has also been developed further in this year's exhibit, Place-A User's Manual.
In 1989, Toshio Iwai presented Man-Machine-TV, No. 1-8. Since then, he has successfully developed new ideas in the interactive arts, and this has made him one of the most advanced artists in this field.
Phototropy II, created by Christa Sommerer and Laurent Mignoneau is a more advanced version of Phototropy, the work they presented two years ago at ARTEC in Nagoya. At The Interaction '95, they presented A-VOLVE, based on the evolution of artificial life. With each new exhibit, they improve the software, adding new functions to take advantage of new, faster computers to enhance its interactivity with the audience. Interactive art, then, is more than interaction between the artist and audience alone. It is a ceaseless process of creative rediscovery by the artist himself as he develops new works. In this respect, interactive art is quite different from conventional art which, once completed, enters the museum and is frozen forever. Through participation, it offers unlimited opportunities to unleash human creativity and thus approaches an ideal form for education.
It is not intended to nurture human resources which are used to produce video games to satisfy the market. By unleashing the richness of human creativity, it provides a higher level of media culture. In this respect, interactive art is already becoming important. It holds within it the potential to ignite the consciousness which will define tomorrow's humanity.

How to Enjoy This Exhibition

In the works on display at this exhibition, we see the breadth of the world that media art takes as its subject. One example is a group of works that invite interaction with outer space imagery of our Globe and planets. Another is a group of works that appeal to delicate senses, especially touch. Between these two extremes lie magical works in which time and space, virtual and real images are mixed. There are also works that have as their themes the growth of living organisms and environmental issues. In this wide variation we see the evolving consciousness of artists who live in this Age of Information.

Outer Space Imagery

For example, there is Berlin's ART+COM's T-Vision. By turning a large trackball in the palm of your hand, you can turn the image of the earth on the screen in front of you. You can zoom in or back off to see it from space. That's not all. As you close in on various places around the world, you can enter buildings and penetrate their inner recesses. This display is a new, more advanced, multi-dimensional version of filmmaker Charles Eames' Powers of Ten, wherein a single lens zooms from the interior of an atom to the depths of outer space.

Myron Krueger, a pioneer in interactive art, has been very productive since the late '60s. Here, by opening your hands around a small planet, you can fly higher or lower, in a work that feels very much like a game. The audience can participate from two separate locations so that while circling the same planet you can enjoy seeing a friend.

Space-Time Interactions

When you look into the hall, what strikes the eye is Jeffrey Shaw's 9-meter diameter surround screen. While standing on the revolving stage in the center, you will see 11 coliseum-shaped worlds displayed on the map on a liquid crystal video camera monitor. When you approach the world of your choice, you can zoom in to examine the interior. That world is then displayed on the screen around you. As you zoom in and zoom out of one world after another, you do, indeed, feel like Alice in Wonderland. When you speak into the tiny microphone, it responds in English. The words are those of James Joyce and take the form of an infinite number of different poems. The words are linked to the virtual world in which you are standing, and the experience has a literary and metaphorical flavor that is different from the usual sort of trip.
The relationship of time and space is also a theme in the work of Jim Campbell. Here, images of visitors are captured by a video camera, then slowly transformed as the time displayed on the clock changes. The result is an uncanny sensation of time passing.
In Canadian Henry See's work, Regard, you enter a room where a man is sitting in a chair reading a book. Depending on where you stand and how far you are from him, he will respond to your gestures in a form of wordless communication. The way this work makes use of space is striking.

Touching Games

At the opposite extreme from the works that use outer-space imagery is another group of works that appeal to the five senses, especially the sense of touch. Monika Fleishmann's Liquid Views is one example. When you approach the monitor, your face is projected on flowing water. When you touch the screen, the water ripples and the face moves. It reminds us of the ancient Greek myth of Narcissus. Another work that invites participation by using your hands is Canadian Thecla Schiphorst's Bodymaps: artifacts of touch. A white velvet cloth is spread on a table about the size of one Japanese tatami mat(6' x 3 '). In the image projected on the cloth, water seems to flow across the table. In the water is the shadow of the artist lying down. When a visitor touches the table, the shadow changes in subtle ways, depending on how it is touched. A faint, then changing, sound is also heard. This highly stimulating and imaginative work makes me forget that there is a computer and sensor working away in the background.

Mixing the Virtual and the Real

Another group of works allows us to rethink our perspective on the mixing of illusion and reality. One example is Masaki Fujihata's Beyond Pages. On a desktop, the image of a page from a large book is displayed. If you touch the apple that appears on the page with a special pen, you hear the sound of the apple being eaten. As the page turns, it gets smaller and smaller. Then, when you touch the light switch, a real desk lamp turns on. The feeling created by this mixture of the real and the virtual reminded me of the time I was startled by the magic of Czecho's LATERNA MAGIKA at a world 's fair a long time ago.
In Christa Sommerer and Laurent Mignoneau's Phototropy II, one sees a very large screen.When a flashlight is shown on the screen, the image of cocoons and eggs appears. If these images receive enough light, butterflies and dragon flies are born, grow, and then fly around. This is the latest in a series of works whose theme is the evolution and artificial life.

The Interaction of Art and play

There are also the interactive arts giving the audiences the joy of play and creation. Toshio Iwai's Violin ~ image of strings is one of those inspiring works. This new work bears a resemblance to Piano - as image media, which Iwai presented at The Interaction '95. Here, again, visitors mix music and a bow across the strings, the visitor extends a finger and touches the touch sensor, the image of the finger is superimposed on the violin. A beautiful beam of light springs from it and dances over the strings, synchronized with the violin's music. As you change the movement of your finger over the sensor, new combinations of image and music are born, You become, in effect, a composer, participating in creating a work in which sound and image are combined.
Last December, at the Art Tower Mito, Iwai and pianist Sakamoto Ryuichi collaborated together to give a performance. On the stage, a giant screen was stretched between two concert pianos. The performance was a mixture of music and image. A beam of light sprang from Sakamoto's piano and danced across the screen. When it touched one of the other pianos, it, too, began to play. Its theme was free participation in creativity and discovery, which is present in all of Iwai's work.

Toward the Expansion of Interactive Art

As you can see, many works of interactive art use this playful spirit to bring the audience into participation in the richness of self-discovery. In this respect, interactive art transcends conventional genres of art. Because it is connected with the broader human reality and the joy of discovery, it should be seen in the context of Caillois and Huizinga's ideas of play as a basis of culture. In it one seems to have stepped away from the traditional elitist ideology of art, in pursuit of something that is at once both cultural and concerned with human survival. From the perspective of interactive art, we sense at last a development in the social and ethical character of art, awareness in which art is linked to the continued existence of the human race.
In this way, too, the meaning of contemporary interactive art has also transcended the stage of games and media and is linked to such basic human concerns as time, space, language, gesture and the psychology of behavior. This consciousness is linked to the sense of reality which one experiences. At the same time, it also touches historical perceptions that connect it to the past. In the future, interactive art will always be changing, transcending the times in which it appears and returning to basic human concerns. Of this we can be sure.


*1. Catalog for The Interaction '95: An Introduction to Interactive Art, published by the Gifu Prefecture Planning Division's International Academy of Media Arts and Sciences (IAMAS).

*2. Regina Cornwell, "Interactive Art and the Video Game: Separating the Siblings," CAMERAWORK: A Journal of Photographic Arts, Vol. 20, No. 1, Spring-Summer 1993)

*3. The Science and Arts of Wonderland, a catalog published by the Kanagawa Prefecture Art & Science Exhibitions Committee.