A great deal of contemporary art purports to be interactive. In this paper I take a critical look at the notion of interactivity; an inadequately defined and somewhat abused term.
Interactivity has very deep roots within the world, first as it self-organises and then as we construct it. At the very least it is at the roots of all biological behaviour (as biosemiotics) and may in fact be seen as the basis for all levels of the organisation of things, from the interactions among sub-atomic particles from which everything is produced, right through to sophisticated communications between humans and societies, and, obviously, between machines and machines, and machines and humans.
Based on the notion of “relations” as a general term for the linkages or interconnections through which all interactions occur, I examine how those linkages must be organised so that information flow is enabled. Thus it is clear that, once interactions begin in the biological realm, all interactivity leads to communication, which between humans, is thought of as conversation. Those classes of interaction that do not lead to communication/conversation are not in fact interactions and are more in the line of responses to events. It is in this situation that the abuse of the term has occurred.
In working towards a theory of interactivity, this paper offers a taxonomy of interactions, so that the understanding of much so-called “interactive” art – particularly when presented as installation or as robotics – can be understood, critiqued and developed. It will also consider the role of sensors and interfaces in implementing and enhancing interactivity.
Ultimately true interactivity is a function of both sides of the conversational process being able to generate new behavioural repertoire that extends, but is not beyond, the understanding of each entity involved in the process. New art works that engage in interactions that extend the behavioural repertoire of the participants might then function as a laboratory for experiment in the further development of robotics and other human-machine interaction systems.
- Dr. Stephen Jones is a video artist, electronic engineer and art historian. He is currently investigating the history of art and technology, particularly in Australia. He is the author of Synthetics: Aspects of Art and Technology in Australia, 1956-1975, recently published by MIT Press.
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