Matt Adams looks at whether technology is changing the way we produce and consume art. Are we still happy looking at paintings in a gallery?
Galleries and museums are more popular now than ever before. The Tate Modern receives around 13,000 visitors a day and New York’s Museum of Modern Art recorded attendances of 2.6 million in 2011. Both museums show work created over the last 100 years or so, including installation and video, but predominantly they are showing paintings and sculptures.
So how are audiences responding to these works, and what sort of interaction are visitors having with these static art pieces? It is a well-recorded fact that the average gallery visitor will spend around 30 seconds looking at a painting.
Most of us would be familiar with this pattern, spending an afternoon wandering around a gallery, stopping every few feet for a quick glance at a modern masterpiece. It’s a pleasant way to spend an afternoon.
We feel satisfied when we’ve seen a Picasso or a Pollock. These artists were the innovators of their time: they experimented with technique and form, often shocking and offending the sensibilities of the day.
But, increasingly, we – and audiences in general – are asking for more. So can art still take audiences on a journey and offer them something new and experimental, now that audiences demand to “have their say” and become participants in the art in front of them?
This is the challenge that today’s artists are presented with. It is a world where the viewer expects to be involved. The experience of art is no longer a one-way street; technology and the Internet now provide a vast gallery space. Creation and consumption are approaching equal status as creating content becomes trivially easy. These are exciting times.
By challenging the conventions of gallery space and location, and by using technology to enable the viewer to affect the outcomes, artists are now pushing the art experience into new areas. At Blast Theory, we mix art, games and performance. We want to explore how technology affects our decisions and our relationships, both with each other and with reality itself. We want to think about what it might mean to have a completely different relationship with the public.
To do this, we’ve worked with the Mixed Reality Lab (MRL) at the University of Nottingham since 1997. This collaboration has led to work that is often based on virtual reality gaming. These games, where participants are invited to make single and collaborative decisions, are part of an aim to explore how we make sense of the world around us through technology.
The work has a fictional framework: a narrative. But it uses a mixture of mobile, gaming and online technologies to create a structure in which the audience can be the protagonist. We ask them to make decisions based on their own ethics and moral codes within a public space.
Our latest work on this theme was A Machine To See With, which was commissioned by the Sundance Film Festival, 01 San Jose Biennial and the Banff New Media Institute. They wanted the commission to focus on ‘locative cinema’ (something new to us and, apparently, new to Google). The final work is a game that begins with an automated call to your mobile phone giving you an address you need to go to.
You are the lead in a heist movie, given instructions over the phone from an unknown person. You make decisions that lead you round the city. You know others are involved, but you don’t know who. It eventually dawns on you that you may have to rob a bank. It’s up to you to deal with the robbery and its aftermath.
* * *
“Do not draw attention to yourself. Everything around you is just pretend,” says the voice on the end of the phone. The caller hangs up. You do not hear from them again. You make choices. Adrenalin runs high. You are part of the work and don’t know how it will end.
This change from the audience’s perspective – from viewer to active participant – is an important shift in interactive art. It allows artists to play with reality and fiction in a physical space and to explore this space as a narratological tool.
It is related to “unlikely architectures”, a term used by curator and cultural researcher José Luis de Vicente. He’s talking about the unlikely set of circumstances that come as a result of this exploration in the grey area between reality and fiction.
More recent interactive artists include Sophie Calle and especially Janet Cardiff, known for her audio walks including 2005′s Her Long Black Hair. It turns an everyday stroll in Central Park into a story, linking the speaker to the listener in a tour, which uses aspects of cinema, location and audio that combines fiction with the physical space.
At Blast Theory, we agree with British composer and visual artist Brian Eno when he says that interactive art must be by its very nature “unfinished”. Each audience member should add to the work, shape it and affect the final outcome in some way. Technology today means we can explore this possibility more thoroughly than ever before.
We believe that the artist needs to be demystified; that the idea of the artist as a remote professional, a mystic who’s separate from the rest of society, is obsolete. The tools of creativity are now closer to everyone. As a consequence, so too are the ways we create it, use it and interact with it.
It is – and from now on always will be – the responsibility of the artist simply to start a discussion that everyone is able to access and be involved with. Thanks to the latest advances in technology, this is finally becoming possible.