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The New Age of Interactive Art

Arts & Culture | March 3, 2014

This past summer, tens of thousands of people braved hours of queuing in the New York summer heat to experience the Museum of Modern Art’s latest attraction: “Rain Room.” This interactive installation allowed viewers, ten at a time, to wander through a room in which artificially simulated rainfall pours down on them. The draw, however, was not the chance of escape from the sweltering July heat; rather, the magic was in the ability of the installation’s sensors to pause the rainfall wherever they sensed a visitor standing, inciting what MoMA’s website describes as “the experience of controlling the rain. ” The installation, created by London-based art studio Random International, generated so much publicity that it drew devoted crowds willing to stand in the sun for an average of five hours for a ten minute experience. The public reaction, though remarkable, was not unexpected. The attraction had averaged a waiting time of 12 hours during its London debut.

Nevertheless, some critics didn’t buy into the hype. In his review for the New York Times, Ken Johnson criticized the piece as being “little more than a gimmicky diversion.”

But regardless of critical response, there is no doubt that the popularity of interactive art installations is on the rise. The MoMA’s latest interactive attractions, featuring performance artist Marina Abramovic’s “The Artist is Present,” as well as Yayoi Kasama’s installation at the David Zwirner gallery titled “I Who Have Arrived in Heaven,” received similarly sensational responses from the public. In “The Artist is Present,” hundreds of thousands of patrons lined up outside for the chance to sit in a chair across from Abromavic herself and gaze into her eyes. Visitors waited hours for this fleeting but profound interaction with Abromovic, knowing that they could not truly experience the profundity and depth of the work unless they had created their own unique and personal experience with it.

This surge in the emergence of interactive art raises the question: why is this trend gaining traction, and what does this traction say about our society’s perceptions of and expectations from art?

One explanation can be found in the propagation of social media and our subsequent desire to personalize and take ownership of our artistic experiences. Applications such as Spotify, Pandora, and Netflix now give the audience more freedom to customize their experience than ever before. We are no longer limited to the prescribed programming of television and radio, but instead have the ability to shape our cultural consumption in a way that reflects our preferences, and more importantly, in a way that contributes to our identity. Modern society seems to expect this capacity for customization in the visual arts as well. “The nature of the web [has] trained people not to want to sit still and look” argues Frank Rose, the author of The Art of Immersion: How the Digital Generation Is Remaking Hollywood, Madison Avenue, and the Way We Tell Stories. “There’s a huge appetite for something more immersive and sensory, in which you can take a somewhat active role.” Viewers resist what they see as experiential limitations set by an artist’s vision or intention. Thus, artists have begun to cater to these expectations and desires by creating interactive art pieces through which each viewer can personalize their experience and create an individualized relationship with the work.

Social media has increasingly become an important tool for promoting and introducing new art to the public. Artists, galleries, and museums are using social media as a resource to communicate with their audiences and to disseminate their work. Because our perception of the world around us has become so limited by what we are exposed to through the Internet and social media, we often only come into contact with art that is circulated through online marketing.

The emergence of interactive art on the stage of contemporary art can, to an extent, be linked to our ever-growing addiction to social media. Social media forums such as Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram have catalyzed a phenomenon of entitlement in which the rising generations feel the constant need to assert a heightened sense of personalized identity. The growing influence of social media has blurred the line between the creator and the viewer. It has abstracted our sense of artistic ownership. In an age where image and experience sharing happens in an instant, viewers are claiming ownership over art, whatever its form may be, and obscuring our conception of art as property belonging to the artist.

The emphasis on the interactive elements of these installations suggests that art has become less about the artist and more about the viewer. Though the artist still largely maintains authority over their artistic intentions and vision, a greater emphasis is being placed on satisfying the viewer and providing him or her with a desired experience. Take Yayoi Kusama’s “Mirrored Room,” for example. In his review for the New York Times, William Grimes celebrated Kusama’s grand reflections on “death and the afterlife” but also emphasized how “‘Mirrored Room’ offers a little something for everyone by ”providing an opportunity for the “ultimate selfie.” “One click and there you are, floating in the universe, or rather, multiple yous, replicated over and over.” When the viewer becomes absorbed with taking the “ultimate selfie” or competing with friends for the ultimate Instagram picture, they can make the art their own in a new way.  We often interact casually with this type of art before sharing the creation. People can take pictures of themselves in the rain room staying dry amidst the rain, but they can’t take that same selfie with the Mona Lisa.  Following the endorsement of MoMA’s official “Rain Room” hashtag—#RainRoom—which promised to stream tagged photos into a museum sponsored live feed, upwards of 20,000 hits flooded the hashtag on Instagram.

While this poses a real threat to the preservation of the artist’s statement and intention, the public’s dramatic reaction to these highly popularized interactive art pieces hasn’t proved to be solely negative. Despite hours of waiting to experience these installations, they have certainly made art more accessible to those who lack the historical and technical background to partake in more traditional fine arts. Moreover, it has given a new kind of thrill to those who have such background.  Furthermore, these innovative art pieces draw considerable crowds, and have consequentially increased museum attendance. Abromavic’s interactive piece drew a total of 561,471 viewers to the MoMA. This remarkable figure certainly contributed to the recording-setting 3.09 million visitors who attended the MoMA’s 2009-10 season (which also included the heavily attended “Monet’s Water Lilies” and “Tim Burton” exhibits). There is no doubt that public interest in the art world has been revived, and has ignited the contemporary art scene with a sensationalism that fosters an eager audience who is willing to support and partake in the artist’s work.