Research paper

Sensing the state of flux: interaction, human perception and layered experience

Abstract

The focus of this research paper is how interactions and aesthetic experiences come across in interactive arts. Being in the perceptive act of here and now with an activating artwork, this hybrid art form moves in-between the installation arts, the time-based arts and the performing arts. In this critical context the research analyses interactivity as an artistic strategy to engage with an audience and it emphasizes the dialectic processes to improve the layered experience of interactive artworks.

The relationship in the active triad of artist, artwork and participant is explored by viewing to their roles and behaviours. As Fluxus introduced its audience on the playing field of the artwork, it shares similar artistic concerns with the actual interactive arts. By applying ideas from Fluxus as an inspiring attitude to the interactive environment, this paper develops a dynamic artistic view of flux. This relates to the playful, open and activating character of Fluxus. It draws from the theoretical and practical works of Roy Ascott, Paul Sharits, Nam June Paik and Allan Kaprow, and finds some process-based characteristics as valuable for enhancing the interactive experience. The nature of experiences in activating environments is reflected upon through the insights of John Dewey and the ecological psychology of human perception by James Gibson. This is followed by a reflection on how a layered interactive experience may be built upon uncertainties, which need to be revealed. Furthermore, the paper suggests integrating found Fluxus merits into several interactive models and human-computer interaction frameworks. It shows some practical examples in working towards a visual artistic model, which is a playful changing epistemic process as well.

 

Keywords

interaction, epistemic experience, participation, Fluxus, Human-Computer Interaction

 

Introduction

Interactivity is an interesting artistic strategy to engage in a work of art. Interaction means foremost that someone is taking part and influences in a certain way a changing outcome of the responsive work. Interactivity can be seen as a medium that transforms the viewer into a participant. Through experiencing what is happening during such a reciprocal interaction with an artwork both participant(s) and artist may perceive and produce their respective meaning.

In 1966 Roy Ascott, then a member of Fluxus, wrote in his essay ‘Behaviourist Art and the Cybernetic Vision’

… to draw the spectator into active participation in the act of creation; to extend him, via the artifact, the opportunity to become involved in creative behaviour on all levels of experience – physical, emotional, and conceptual. A feedback loop is established, so that the evolution of the artwork/experience is governed by the intimate involvement of the spectator. As the process is open-ended, the spectator now engages in decision-making play.

However, this exact statement could just as easily have been published by a contemporary media artist about interactive arts today. It is apparent that the world of art has changed a lot in five decades, but in these striking resemblances may lie opportunities for learning about the dynamic process principles of both Fluxus and the interactive arts. We will come back on the work and thinking of Fluxus artists of that era, but first we want to establish what is the actual field of interactive arts to be discussed here.

 

Interactive processes, a critical context

There are many ways to describe and analyse an interactive artwork and its behaviours. A key characteristic is that the interactive artwork is somehow a work in movement. Eco wrote in 1962 about the poetics of moving open work and recognised the major shift in relationship between ‘the contemplation and the utilisation of a work of art’. Key in our thinking here is that the experience can be aesthetic and that such an open work has reflective qualities as well. Kwastek provided a thorough analysis of interactive art in ‘Aesthetics of Interaction in Digital Art’ and she convincingly shows

… that the aesthetics of interactive art manifests itself primarily as an aesthetics of interaction. The focus of interactive art is on the staging, the realization, and the critical analysis of interaction processes, not on the gestalt that may be created or conveyed by means of these processes. The epistemic potential of interactive art is based, as we have seen, on an oscillation between flow and distancing and between action and reflection that originates in the processes of interaction (Kwastek 2013, p.171).

To create such an experience, there is the need for a dialogue in-between three main actors. Those are the artist, the interactive artwork and the interactor. The communication in this triangle is mostly dialectical. Both in the first stage, while the artist is conceiving and building the interactive work as well as in the intended realising stage of interaction between the interactor and artwork. Co-creation is often thought of in this context and this might question the authorship of the artist. However, in reality involved artists see their role in a different light in this process-based art form. Whether creator, facilitator or digital producer, the artist focusses on the processes at work while the public is actively involved with the artwork, its resistance and the forthcoming meaning and judgments.

Interactive art is therefore sometimes associated with Relational Aesthetics as coined by Nicolas Bourriaud (1998), in which artists are exploring inter-human relations in their social context. Cabrita and Bernardes (2016) propose in that sense a relational interactive art in which the interactions between humans should be taken into account as well. Although certain group dynamics might have their, sometimes even disruptive, influences on experiencing the interactions, here I will not focus on visitors’ interaction among themselves. Thus keeping the focus towards the aesthetic experience itself.

Interactivity has also become associated to the actual post-modern discourse about today’s art and technology. Critical assessing interactivity as a ‘foul promise’ Cramer states firmly that

… it is a blatant reductionism of the broad anthropological notion of interaction to primitive stimulus-response formalisms, in utter ignorance of the actual scope and complexity of human interaction. There is, in other words, no such thing as true interaction in a technical device (2013, p.20-21).

Cramer also warns with the help of the manifesto ‘Art, Power and Communication’ by net artist Alexei Shulgin (1996) for the ‘transition from representation to manipulation’. Inspired by Shulgin, another Russian Lev Manovich (1996) explained the differences in Western and Eastern vision about this manipulation which is partly caused by their respective historical backgrounds. In the West interactivity stands for democracy and equality which brings an optimistic view on technology as well, while in the post-communistic East interactivity comes in darker settings as it yet again will be a form of manipulation because technology has also been a political instrument of power.

Clearly, both critiques on interactivity have to be answered by individual artists who deal with interactivity and such a response could be as follows.

Well-known artist Lozano-Hemmer is in 2007 quite aware of the problematic technological claims and its semantics while saying in an interview with Monica Ponzini (Digicult) that he, referring to interactivity

… decided not to be included in the very utilitarian, predatorial use of this kind of vertical application of technology. To me ‘relational’ meant something that was more lateral, something more networked, it was more about establishing relationship, interactivity never seem to be that way, it seems to me to be one way – you do something, the computer does something else and that’s the end of it.

Here we meet arguments that compare the human and the computer as both complex but unequal ‘systems’, but few will deny that the expected interactions of the different actors are incommensurable. Cramer is merely reducing the art devices into digital input-output models and pointing that machines are just able to repeat their actions so far. As long as artificial intelligence has not really proven itself he argues, one may not expect any true interactivity. However, these simple models are in place so humans can understand their mechanisms better and that does not dismiss that interactive digital devices have an almost unlimited number of potential outcomes. This will lead to many and often unexpected interactions. Above all, one may question whether the media artist is looking for true interactions at all. The real intentions lay for instance in establishing spatial relationships as Lozano-Hemmer describes part of his work not as site-specific but relationship-specific and focusing on the experiences. The working of the artwork in a one-on-one relation with the interactor is at stake here, while at the same time the asymmetrical relationship keeps existing between artist and audience caused by different understandings and perceptions of the ‘black box’ artwork. Whether this results in a politics of manipulation is an ethical question to be judged by the historic-aware artist time and time again.

 

Terminology, Fluxus learnings and conscious acts

Interaction is in our context considered to be more than the viewer who is completing the artwork as meant in its receptive sense by Duchamp and others. Here the work requires mutual action, sensing, perceiving, activating, testing, repeating, trial and error and so on. The alternating interplay evolves while the interaction gives hope for the unexpected, the aesthetic, the insightful, the unconstrained, the novel, in order to experience intellectual, emotional and physical freedom in and from our common world. This is considered to be a layered and epistemic experience.

Accordingly, there are many involving roles to be found in the interactive space and around the interactive installation. Viewers, observers or visitors could be called recipients as Kwastek (2013) consequently does. This emphasizes the multisensory and the receptive mode of the person who engages with the work of art. However, as the term recipient highlights the receiving qualities, I prefer the more active ‘interactor’ for the person who does something, consciously or unconsciously, with the interactive work. When referring to the ‘participant’ I subsequently mean the aware person, the conscious interactor, who deliberately acts and plays with the work. The term ‘spectator’ may be reserved for the person who does recognize the artwork as interactive, but not engages actively with the work. He or she does not want to play or engage with the apparatus for the aesthetic experience but may enjoy and reflect upon the aesthetic production, its outcome as is. Last but not least, the ‘interpreter’ or ‘performer’ may use the interactive installation as device for performance, to show in a theatrical sense to others around, what the interaction can be about.

Performing arts have been inspired by Fluxus as their Happenings and events strongly relate to mutual performative elements. But Fluxus works were often played-out by activating instructions to open everyday situations and this made them into meaningful experiences too. Let’s therefore explore Fluxus, without aiming to go in depth in its well-reported history which spans part of the 50’s, 60’s and 70’s, but with the lens focused on interactive potential.

What can we learn from Fluxus and their attitude for the benefit of actual interactions? Realising that by shifting control towards the audience, as the Fluxus artists did in their playful manner, can we find more aspects of Fluxus which help our insights in contemporary interactive experiences?

I will refer to Fluxus and fluxus, without capital letter, as this useful distinction clarifies Fluxus as art movement and fluxus as an attitude sharing similar artistic concerns. The latter sprung from the work of Friedman and Smith which adverts the historical perspective of Fluxus beyond its era as a way to act and think in fluxus-mode as well:

Debates on the past, present and even the future of Fluxus make clear that Fluxus matters to many people. It is even clearer that it matters to different people for very different reasons. … From the first, Fluxus involved difference, divergence and variability, and most (if not all) of the Fluxus artists openly celebrated these qualities. (Friedman and Smith, 2006).

The Korean-American artist Nam June Paik, later recognised as the founder of video art, experimented in those days with shock and physical surprise to ‘awake his audience’ for a high-conscious experience. Also, he wrote an essay in An Anthology (Young ed. 1963) where he combined Stockhausen, sex as fixed form, Zen, catharsis, human nature, Ying Yang, in a worthwhile mixture. Paik probably realised the vast potential of the art-in-daily-life-field while stating ‘If nature is more beautiful than art is, it is not so because of its intensity or complexity but because its variability, abundant abundancy, endless quantity’.

Fluxus-member Paul Sharits had also a theory of consciousness. Part of the avant-garde at that time found there was a kind of passivity of reception to their arts and they tried to achieve a more conscious public. Therefore, Sharits bombarded his audience with hefty flicker films in which their physical and visceral, deeply inward felt, reactions were tested. His filmmaking and teachings led him into a still actual model for film studies in which he favours to replace static thinking by more dynamic ways of understanding these processes as ‘a unified temporal and moving structure’. Although derived from cinematics, one could argue that this is an exemplary thinking model for actual interactive installations too. Even so, Sharits’ Fluxus attitude comes clearly forward in writing that ‘exploratory, experimental behavior is of higher value than any specific methodological stance or any specific designation of acceptable content’. And he further advocates ‘Integral to humor is playfulness… To speculate is to play’ and explains the reflective intention with ‘what lies beyond humor and seriousness – the unthought, the undone, the unfelt’ (Sharits, 1976).

Roy Ascott made so-called Change-Paintings in the early 60’s. He let the audience shift his painted glass panels and therewith rearrange the compositions. This activation could be seen as first steps into a series of ongoing investigative collaborations about change and interchange. Shanken (2001) explains that ‘according to Ascott, it was at the level of consciousness that the artist, artwork, and viewer exchange aesthetic information and alter their individual states, thereby transforming the consciousness and behavior of the (social) system as a whole’.

Shock, surprise, variability, emotional responses, speculation, humour, play, changing: it may have become evident that Fluxus particularly worked within the realm of psychology and sociology. This artform experimented with the meaning of life, because by actively implicating humans and thus perceptions into the artworks a new dialectic started. In ‘the shape of the art environment’ (1968) Kaprow described this context and marked the spectators the other important physical component in the space. Not only the number of people but especially their thoughts and attitudes had big impact on the meaning of the work and thereby the experience (Kaprow, p.94).

 

Experience: action, perception and reflection in collaboration

Experiences affect how you think, feel or do. They may vary by their kind and be of intellectual, emotional or physical nature. According to Bishop (2005, p.26), Kaprow intended to address ‘the unconscious, the alogical’ and we may consider this as an ambiguous experience. The conscious and unconscious mixture is all part of the layered experience, that we are after.

John Dewey (1934) explained that an experience is acquired through the relation of undergoing and doing joined with ongoing perception. Thinking about the human roles again, the recipient is undergoing, the interactor is also doing, while the participant is also reflecting and becomes aware of the changing experience. Then this dynamic interaction process may produce meaning (in time) and hopefully being rich and in depth, it will be anchored next to former experiences.

Ecological psychologist James Gibson (1979) advocated the mutual importance of the conscious action in the activating environment. As the latter gives affordance, they do belong together when speaking about perception, comprehended as taking-in the dynamic environment with our attentive senses, as necessary condition for reflection. Human perception is seen as continuous act, both ‘subjective and objective… one perceives the environment and co-perceives oneself’ (Gibson, p.126).

From phenomenological viewpoint Merleau-Ponty agrees that perception requires action in order to be in ‘communion’ with the world. He emphasized ‘the embodied nature of perception as an active process of meaning construction’ (Svanæs, 2000, p.89-91). Consequently, epistemic experiences in interactive environments are possible due to bodily presence and the collaborative forces between perceiving of, interacting with and reflection upon.

Thereafter, the question may be whether reflective qualities were also sought for at that early stage in the Fluxus approach. In Manifesto (1966) due to the ‘elusive alternatives of not-quite-art and not-quite-life’ Kaprow wrote about the shifting role of the artist in this reflecting sense and claimed:

Now, as art becomes less art, it takes on philosophy’s early role as critique of life. Even if its beauty can be refuted, it remains astonishingly thoughtful. Precisely because art can be confused with life, it forces attention upon the aim of its ambiguities, to ‘reveal’ experience (Kaprow, p.82).

Although the role of philosophy is perhaps downplayed with a purpose, it is an interesting statement. Kaprow sees the thoughtful, the reflective as prime aspect of the works, to be uncovered in the experience, reading as a matter of interaction. Firstly, willingness to participate and attention is gained. Secondly, by uncovering the puzzle from between ambiguous signs makes something else to happen, which can be reflexive interaction. Kaprow explored with his works that ‘intrinsic connection of the self with the world through the reciprocity of undergoing and doing’ (Dewey, 1934, p.257). When one is climbing in a backyard installation full of rubber tyres, one can’t help to question yourself. What kind of play is going on? What am I doing here? What was the intent of the artist here? We may conclude that this kind of self-awareness in the process of being with and dealing with an interactive work, in an installation, Happening or with instructions of a Fluxkit alike, leaves a deeper imprint because of its uncovering nature. A personal Eureka moment creates a rich experience by making a first-hand story to tell. Naturally, as these stories – compared to mere facts and figures – are far better containers for our memory, one builds deeper layers of long-lasting experiences by this reveal.

 

A process plan of playing with uncertainty

Fluxus, to be in flux, as to stream and to flow, has always embraced its potential to change. The paradigm being that awareness of change is fundamental to our experience of reality.

Chance, uncertainty and surprise were artistic means to get this change. Artists of those days reckoned chance as a vehicle of the spontaneous and thus against control. They liked working with random processes and made these valuable in their own right. The a-typical use of conventional objects was also an expressionistic challenge with the unexpected. Interventions with the public contained (emotional) responses and these were instantly valued and taken into the work like a jazz improvisation.

But, as Morrill (2012) states ‘Kaprow’s Happenings were multi-layered events, highly structured and with referential logics that have often been overlooked, despite their being largely consistent from one performance to the next’. This structural planning aspect could be seen in other Fluxus events as well. Brief score events (f.i. by Yoko Ono) and listings of what to do next (f.i. by Dick Higgins) and instructions for example on paper or in boxes like the Fluxkit multiples (f.i. by George Maciunas) were commonplace.

Ascott recognised already a process-oriented attitude in the arts of his time. He saw in the visual arts a trend going from essence, objects and being, towards existence, events and doing. He envisioned that modalities, like visual, tactile, postural and aural could be integrated in behavioural relations between artist, artefact and spectator. He was thinking about self-supporting art systems, which were controlling and communicating their behaviour by its feedback loops. Then the ongoing play becomes a dialogue, in which thoughts, emotions, and ideas could be travelling around in constant but diverse streams.

 

Interaction frameworks and contemporary perspectives with Fluxus

There are a number of frameworks for interactivity around. Their specific academic origins give them certain perspectives. Consequently, respective frameworks may provide different insights for the artist to study and create interactive works. But Fluxus demanded also, and consequently fluxus demands to be treated as ongoing proposal or series of process-based experiments. This led me to the challenging concept of connecting frameworks and Fluxus characteristics in a new manner.

Three brief examples will be given how different framings may be expanded with recent Fluxus learnings. This may introduce a helpful artistic tool during stages of brainstorm, creation, production, interaction and evaluation.

Example 1. How to improve the incentive to start interaction? Or differently put, how does the viewer become an interactor and then a conscious participant?

Case studies in public space, for example in Taiwanese tube stations, show that often interactive works are not conceived as such and there is an apparent need for specific clues to make people aware. Is there another way than placing signs like ‘please interact, touch, move, speak, push now’? The participants’ intentions and how they make sense of the results of their actions can be structured by applying the engagement framework of Her (2014). Five effects are determined to comprehend the variable trajectory of interactivities. ‘Transfer’ describes the course, time spent, and responsiveness. ‘Play’ is about control and flow, which may lead to deeper engagement. ‘Challenge’ looks at skills, dialogue and awareness. ‘Accessibility’ questions frame of reference, associations concerning looks and outputs, and whether suitable clues and impetus are built in the work? ‘Incentive’ is about how the attention for the interactive work is won.

Challenge and accessibility are essential to draw viewers into interaction. Just as Kaprow was sincerely averse about the museum rituals, he would try to make the work accessible in another place, where the viewer habits may be different, less formal. Being in a public space, the invitation to interact is often a matter of short multisensory encounter. Fluxus showed us that awareness of change is something fundamental. Whatever the senses to be approached, as long as there is flux, that is change in time and intensity, it will attract more attention, which means bigger chance to interact.

Example 2. While the participant feels the agency, having access to some kind of interface and being able to interact, what could improve the qualities of interaction?

A psychological framework concerning the motives of the interactor is  the framework of the pleasure of play and absorption from Costello and Edmonds (2007). 13 pleasure categories are formulated. The paradigm is that when pleasure fades away, one loses interest in the interaction as well and therefore the interactor leaves the artwork. Costello and Edmonds (2009) showed benefits of this play-framework in two ways. As tool for designing interactive artworks it proved to be useful for keeping focus in the first stages of creation. Secondly, this framework was valued as communication and evaluation tool between artist and audience to reflect on meaningful experiences.

Adding our Fluxus insights dynamical shifts between types of play could be insightful too. And from the metaphor of a-typical use of objects we could similarly ask how this play-framework would transform when the participants could define the rules of play instead of the artist or the artwork?

Example 3. Shifting closer towards the interface of the artwork, suppose we ask which senses can be addressed in a certain space and to what level of interaction? Are there helpful Fluxus learnings in this case too?

Interactive works are analysed by viewing at its interfaces with a model from the human-computer-interaction field (HCI). The multimodal interaction space model (Bongers and van der Veer, 2007) is a descriptive framework, that identifies interaction possibilities in an electronic environment. Sensory modalities can function sequentially as well as parallel in time, which feed our multimodal continuous being. By analysing these modalities the intricate interaction between people and technology may enhance the layered experience.

Back to our question, we propose the answer may be found in a visual framework. Bongers and van der Veer (2007) recommended to develop a visual representation for the various interaction possibilities already, but this requires further research. Here, I even suggest that principles of Fluxus could be incorporated too, so that a fluxing visual model may become a tool for artists.

 

Conclusion

Many of the Fluxus concepts can be transformed to the benefit of interactive arts. Both artforms have the experience of the participants at their core focus. Fluxus artists were also engaged in consciously addressing people in their experiments. The interaction of artwork with participants is a dynamic process with physical, emotional and intellectual layers. Kaprow showed that the phenomenon of uncovering is very valuable for interacting with a work. Solving the affording puzzle of the artwork, testing the implicit instructions or the rules of the play, finding behaviour in an exchange for a rewarding outcome. All this may address those three layers within time.

Ascott identified that active spectator engagement happens when the participant is removing uncertainty within the given set of possibilities. The task for the interactive artist, who is interested in generating a multitude of experiences, is thus to offer uncertainties: creating dynamic constructs as opportunities to motivate participants to find novel behaviours, insights and unexpected experiences.

This study clarified further thinking in a continuous model of movement and change. The trajectory of the interaction works within the dynamic processes of action, perception and reflection. Control, play and chance could be utilised here while oscillating between their extremes. Interaction is also understood as a dialectical process in a state of flux, aware of the conscious-self and perception within an environment, necessary for a meaningful experience.

Finally, a suggestion for a visual artistic framework was made. Examples were described where Fluxus may attribute to new insights. By integrating these merits, an experimental tool may be developed in the spirit of Fluxus as a changing epistemic experience for the interactive arts.

 

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