Interaction to Intra-action

Interactive art works are works that involve the participant and cannot be realised without some form of interaction on the viewer’s behalf. They are dynamic, changing and never static.

One of the earliest works that could be said to be interactive is Marcel Duchamp’s Rotary Glass Plates. The work involved spinning the giant glass wheel, interactive in an extremely simple sense: the viewer had to turn it on and hope they didn’t get injured.

Later in 1953, Yaacov Akam started making what he called Transformable Reliefs: artworks that could be rearranged by the audience. He also made other pieces that were play objects of a sort, that had to be stroked or touched in some other way for the audience to experience them as intended. His interest, according to Günter Metken was “… to release the creativity of the art public, to encourage people to enter into the spirit of his work and change it according to their tastes”

“Everything is situated within a process – everything is in motion. This not only applies to comprehensive systems like entire societies or the development of an international search engine on the internet, but also to our perception of a given space, here and now, and to our interaction with other people. All these relationships are evolving and they are not merely situated in the midst of their time; rather, they are of time.” — Olafur Eliasson [1]

 Later in the phenomenological works of the early 21st century, artists such as Dan Flavin, James Turrell and Olafur Elliason[2] manipulated the subject/object dialogue to the point where the perception of the viewer was the medium that was being manipulated or interacted with. They attempted to move beyond the materiality of physical interaction. Olafur draws on the work of Henry Bergson, writing that ‘movement, which is reality itself’. This is movement in the widest sense: of process, of change. Space, then, cannot be a static slice orthogonal to time and defined in opposition to it.[3] In experiencing these interactive works we are confronted by the heightened awareness of our own senses and the importance of affective understanding.

(Above) Danae ValenzaYour Motion Says, 2016, installation view, Primavera 2016: Young Australian Artists, Museum of Contemporary Art Australia, Sydney, 2016, neon, sound.

Our sensory system is essential to being. The sensory system is a transducer that filters and relays information from the world outside to the mind inside. It is a distributed notion of the brain, with nerves and receptors constantly receiving information, passing energetically along our neural pathways and into our sensory cortex, without our conscious awareness.

By defining a way of sensing and a way of acting in an interactive system, the interface defines the “experience of being” for that system. Through their design of the interface, the creators have in large part defined the user’s “quality of life” while they are interacting with the system.

Interactive art asks us what is our user interface for reality? What is the nature of our relationship with the world? I, like David Rokeby am not qualified to plumb the depths of philosophical thinking on this subject. There is a branch of philosophy dedicated to these questions called “phenomenology” which i’ve addressed earlier that seeks to answer such questions.

(Above) Rafael Lozano Hemmer, Pulse Room. Incandescent light bulbs, voltage controllers, heart rate sensors, computer and metal sculpture

An interaction is only possible when two or more people or systems agree to be sensitive and responsive to each other. The process of designing an interaction should also itself be interactive. We design interfaces, pay close attention to the user’s responses and make modifications as a result of our observations. But we need to expand the terms of this interactive feedback loop from simply measuring functionality and effectiveness, to include an awareness of the impressions an interaction leaves on the user and the ways these impressions change the user’s experience of the world. We’re always looking for better input devices and better sensors to improve the interactive experience. But we also need to improve our own sensors, perceptions and conceptual models so we can be responsive to the broader implications of our work.[4]

In Your Engagement has Consequences, Olafur extends this idea by stating that if people are given tools and made to understand the importance of a fundamentally flexible space, we can create a more democratic way of orienting ourselves in our everyday lives. We could call our relationship with space one of co-production: when someone walks down a street she co-produces the spatiality of the street and is simultaneously co-produced by it. [5]

This is an idea that is central to the idea of intra-action, a term coined by Karen Barad to get beyond the metaphysics of individualism underpinning conventional understandings of “interactions.” Intra-actions involve the mutual constitution of entangled agencies. “Boundaries do not sit still,” she writes (1996).  “Bodies are not objects with inherent boundaries and properties; they are material-discursive phenomena.  ‘Human’ bodies are not inherently different from ‘nonhuman’ ones” (1996).

Phenomena do not merely mark the epistemological inseparability of “observer” and “observed”; rather, phenomena are the ontological inseparability of agentially intra-acting “components.” The notion of intra-action (in contrast to the usual “interaction,” which presumes the prior existence of independent entities) represents a profound conceptual shift. The relationships between agents emerge through intra-action, whereby the notion of agential separability is dissolved. The notion of agential separability is of fundamental importance, for in the absence of a classical ontological condition of exteriority between observer and observed it provides the condition for the possibility of objectivity. Hence, the notion of intra-actions constitutes a reworking of the traditional notion of causality.[6]

Phew, that’s a lot of deep ontological thinking.

Basically, we should all consider ourselves agents of change, empowered and dynamic agents in whatever context we choose. What I love about interactive art is that it privileges the individual and allows us to make up our own mind about how we think the work should play out.

[1] Eliasson, O., 2009. Your engagement has consequences. Experiment Marathon: Serpentine Gallery, pp.18-21.

[2] Jan Butterfield The Art of Light and Space. New York : London : Abbeville, 1996

[3] Massey, D., 2003. Some times of space. Olafur eliasson: The weather project, pp.107-118.

[4] Rokeby, D., 1998. The construction of experience: Interface as content. Digital Illusion: Entertaining the future with high technology, pp.27-48.

[5] Eliasson, O., 2009. Your engagement has consequences. Experiment Marathon: Serpentine Gallery, pp.18-21.

[5] Barad, K., 2003. Posthumanist performativity: Toward an understanding of how matter comes to matter. Signs28(3), pp.801-831.


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