Sound and fury

Too much in the world of digital interactivity focuses on its use of technology, rather than on communicating ideas to an audience. John Stones bemoans this obsession with novelty, which fails to hide a paucity of meaningful content

Clanking away with deafening vigour, the sculpture machines of Swiss artist Jean Tinguely were a sight to behold. Large spaces would be filled with assembled bit of metal junk, somehow co-ordinated into ludicrous devices that served little purpose other than to noisily self-destruct. They would inspire both hilarity and poignancy in viewers who watched the futile and absurd movements the sculptures would make. Fast-forward to the unfortunately named Ars Electronica, the ambitious museum for the digital age located in the Austrian city of Linz, and you will see interactive, digital works of art and/or design (the distinction is largely irrelevant) that are superficially very similar to those of Tinguely, but with an important difference – they’re totally devoid of the ironic tragicomedy of his work.

Take Quartet, one of the museum’s exhibits created by Jeff Lieberman and Dan Paluska (both ex-Massachusetts Institute of Technology). It is an electromechanical sculpture/installation that is undeniably sophisticated in a technological sense. But the result is merely that ping pong balls are ejected by robots to play random sequences on a marimba – nothing less, nothing more.

Then there’s Level Head, another exhibit, which is basically a simple computer game in a pretty environment – is it really ‘the digital doppelganger’ that its creator, Julian Oliver (an artist and software designer from New Zealand), intends, or a case of the Emperor’s new clothes? Many of Ars Electronica’s installations are of the over-familiar, screen-based kind now de rigueur in museums around the world.

Instead of taking the mickey, the museum and its exhibits – and, indeed, digital installations in general – take themselves frightfully seriously. Tinguely died in 1991, well before digital art properly got in its stride. He termed his own absurdist position Metamechanics, owing much to the Dadaists and their suspicion of Modernity. And in some ways his work presaged the future of mechanised, digitised, interactive artworks while gleefully tugging the carpet out from under them.

Places like Ars Electronica, despite its admirable intentions, can end up as the exhibition equivalent of our current predicament when it comes to television. You can watch thousands of channels, not only on your television, but also on your computer, mobile phone and other devices yet to be invented – and yet you often don’t really want to watch a single one because of the lamentable quality of the programmes themselves.

It is like a return to the early Modernists and their belief in the machine, that technology can almost be poetic in itself, irrespective of content.

Or, to put it another way, there is a big difference between a Rembrandt and a box full of tubes containing oil paints. Content is crucial, even if it is less quantifiable, less easy to put on Excel spreadsheets.

When new content is not being developed it leads to a kind of cultural asset-stripping, with very little new material being produced to maintain our communal pool of cultural archetypes. Digital art and digital installations in our museums still seem very much at a primary stage, either pointing to themselves in wonder or going little further than creating banal and patronising Fisher-Price effects. ‘We feel that a well-designed interactive is one that begins, rather than ends, a conversation,’ announces Potion, a successful New York interactive design consultancy. But a conversation about what? As with Twitter, there’s always the danger that ‘too many tweets might make a twat’, as the Conservative Party leader David Cameron memorably put it.

There’s a brief window in which the novelty of the technology is enough to capture people’s attention, before its emptiness is apparent and the next novelty comes along. It is like the craze for ‘apps’ for Apple’s iPhone – when you’re bored with iFartz (the iPhone application that has brought many a business meeting to a premature end), there is always Play Marbles to download. Those interactive sites that are popular become so because they enable pre-existing human interactions, such as chatting, and not because of anything intrinsic to themselves.

Antony Gormley’s One & Other is occupying the Fourth Plinth in London’s Trafalgar Square to great effect – and will until the end of October. Featuring members of the public standing for an hour at a time, doing more or less whatever they want, it has managed to be surprisingly compelling and popular.

It is an interesting take on interactivity. Looking through the lens of our Big Brother-influenced times, it presents the ancient artist’s trope of Pygmalion, of making the artwork come to life, which, after all, is the fundamental desire of interactive art, whether digital or not.

There is plenty of technology involved – including a 24-hour webcam and an extensive website in which to delve – but this is present as a background enabler, rather than a feature in itself.

Digital interactivity in the exhibition environment, either as exhibit itself or supporting technology, has promised much but has yet to really show its worth. In the meantime, other, more traditional, forms of interactivity will steal the show.

CASE STUDY: RANDOM INTERNATIONAL’S STUDY FOR A MIRROR (2008/9)

As you walk up to the small empty frame, it recognises you and slowly begins to draw you into its previously white metaphorical canvas. Your face is briefly depicted before it slowly fades out to white again. Study for a Mirror, by Random International, is an intriguing take on the current interplay between art and design that characterises interactivity in the exhibition space.

‘We haven’t thought too much about whether we’re designers or artists, but we have implemented the full range of modern design processes to create what is really an art project,’ says Hannes Koch, one of the three former Royal College of Art students that make up the Random International collective.

The impetus was exploratory rather than critical. ‘We’re not really in the commentary business – it’s more about curiosity,’ he says.

The size of Study for a Mirror (produced in an ‘edition’ of eight for Carpenters Workshop Gallery) is taken exactly from the painted triptychs of Francis Bacon.

Its outward simplicity belies a construction that contains Corian, laboratory glass, photo-chromatic pigment, stainless steel, electronic and rapid prototyped components.

Random worked with Chris O’Shea to develop the facerecognition technology, and the project has a long history, with its ideas and technology initially used for shop windows the collective designed for Selfridges in 2006.

Translating this into the world of art was, Koch says, ‘a huge design challenge’. The technology had to be miniaturised and made to work on a much smaller scale – ‘a bit like designing a laptop,’ he adds.

Given that the project concerns itself with ephemerality, Koch has been amused by the reaction to the work. ‘A lot of people ask if they can keep the image, have it printed, hold on to it somehow, which we find funny,’ Koch says.

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