Making Interactive Art: Set the Stage, Then Shut Up and Listen

 Don’t interpret your own work. 

Quite often I see artists who venture into interactive art start by making interactive artworks and offering interpretation in the notes beside them.  They’ll describe the work, then tell you what each element means,and what the participant will do with those elements.  They pre-script what will happen. When you do that, you’re telling the participant what to think, and by extension, how to act. Is that what you wanted?

It’s a hard shift for some artists to think about making interactive work because we’re taught that a work of art is a work of expression. It’s a statement.  Interactive work is different. The thing you build, whether it’s a device or a whole environment, is just the beginning of a conversation with the people who experience your work. What you’re making is an instrument or an environment (or both) in which or with which you want your audience to take action. Ideally they will understand what you’re expressing through that experience.

Your task in designing an interactive artwork is to give your audience the basic context, then get out of their way. Arrange the space, put in the items through they can take action, suggest a sequence of events through juxtaposition. If you want them to handle something, give it a handle. If they’re not supposed to touch something, don;t make it approachable. If they’re supposed to discover something hidden, give hints. Remove anything extraneous.

Once you’ve made your initial statement by building the thing or the environment and designing its behaviors, shut up. Let the audience listen to your work by taking it in through their senses.  Let them think about what each part means, which parts afford contact or control, and which parts don’t.  Let them decide how they will interpret the parts, and how they will respond.  Let them speak through their actions.

The next part of the conversation is to listen. Listen to what they say through their actions, through how they understand, or misunderstand, how to manipulate the parts that you designed to respond to them. Pay attention to their reactions. Some will be emotionally moved, some will not get it, others won’t care. Some will get excited and show others what they learned.  How people interact with your work will change over the course of its presentation. If you’re making interactive artwork, that is the conversation you’re having with the people for whom you make your work.

For me, planning interactive artwork is similar to a director working with actors.  (caveat: I haven’t directed anyone since class in undergrad.  I have worked on several stage productions, but this is years of observation speaking, not firsthand experience) If you want an actor to offer an authentic emotional performance, you can’t tell him what to think or what to do. You can suggest intentions, but you can’t give him interpretations. You can give him props to work with, or place them in the way so he’ll discover them. You can suggest actions, but you can’t tell him how to feel about those actions; he will have to find it for himself. He’ll discover the statement you’re looking to make through that conversation you have in rehearsal, and the resulting expression will be your collaborative effort.

So if you’re thinking of an interactive artwork, don’t think of it like a finished painting or sculpture.  Think of it more as a performance. Your audience completes the work through what they do when they see what you’ve made.  Figure out how to suggest to them what their course of action could be, and how they might uncover their story, and their own emotional interpretation of the work.


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