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Interactive Technology, Interactive Art

February 3, 2010

Several interesting pieces of art by Australian artist Lynette Wallworth came up on The Artblog this weekend. One in particular, Evolution of Fearlessness, was especially interesting in terms of the connection between new technology and art. The piece, an interactive video installation, allows viewers, in a book next to the piece, to read the stories of women who have survived extreme circumstances and have settled in Australia. Viewers then touch the accompanying screen, which momentarily brings up the video of the woman described in the book. In the video recordings, each woman emerges from a dark screen, places their hand on the viewer’s, looks toward the viewer for a moment, then retreats back into darkness.

Wallworth has been integrating technology into her work for years now, in an attempt to link humanity and human emotions with technological innovations. She uses tactile experiences, like touching a screen or holding an object, to enable viewers to interact with the technology used and the art presented.

There is a great deal of meaning to unpack from a piece like Evolution of Fearlessness. On the technological side, the user interface is key. What we’re seeing is user-activated art, and the creation of an active viewer. Unlike a painting, sculpture, or photograph that you may view in a gallery, that is likely protected by glass and velvet ropes (and depending on the painting, more advanced technology to keep the touchey-feeley type at bay) these pieces actually require a human touch to activate the art. You don’t stand back and observe it, you make it happen, make it work, by interacting with the piece.

The separation of the tactile and the informative aspects of the piece is also interesting. It develops the dichotomy between passive and active interaction. By reading the stories, we get information about the person in the piece, and can begin to understand their story, but we do not connect with the person until we reach out and touch them, see them face to face (as much so as the piece can achieve) and receive recognition through their responding touch.

In a society that is increasingly interacting through computer screens and text, to the extent that we e-mail or text people rather than calling them, or comment on a facebook post rather than discussing the topic in person, a piece like this points to what the essential connection between people is, that we may lose to online, in-text interactions. By facebooking, or texting, or e-mailing, or blogging, we are passively interacting with the world. These outlets have their benefits, but we must question the value of degree to which these are replacing actual human interaction.

Looking toward what can be done with technology, the piece also points to the potential for technology to connect people that would not normally have access to each other. We gain an understanding of a person through the text that describes them, but also through their image and through interactions and contact with them.  The visual connection and the tactile connection are as important as the information we gain through textual explanations. In some ways, we can already gain a visual connection with others via social media sites that allow pictures and profile pictures, but these are often controlled by the users, and may not give an accurate portrayal of that person. Online videos are working as a means to connect people by showing examples of reality that may not be released to the public through the mass media, as we saw during the Iran election protests. But there is still a sense of removal, in that with videos, we can not really interact with people, aside from posting a textual comment on the site where the video is hosted.

What the piece may be showing is a future for communications platforms like Skype, which allow visual and vocal interaction via the Internet. Use of a skype like program on a social media site like facebook could connect individuals around the world on a more human level than current sites offer by allowing them to interact beyond text. If anything, Evolution of Fearlessness, in its technological aspects, points to a lack in connection through the electronic means currently available, and in the stories associated with the piece, suggests the dangers of removing human connections with online interactions, thereby limiting communication to passive interactions

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