New York

“The Interactive Show”

Thread Waxing Space

Was the notion that the viewer completes the artwork ever much more than a rhetorical proposition? For the artists in this show it ceased to be merely rhetorical and actually became a functional proposition. The medium was not a material but, rather, a connection or a conjunction, a medium in the etymological sense of the word, something that happened between a work and a viewer.

How many times have you gone to an art gallery and wished you could take a few whacks at something with a hammer? Matthew Schlanger’s Lumpy Banger, 1991, invited you to pound a few nails into a block of wood wired for sound and embedded with a video monitor. Schlanger provided the hammer and nails, though he hoped that “some very creative people might even create and bring with them their own nails, thereby extending the interactive process beyond the walls of the gallery.” He also hoped that you would be considerate enough not to try to pound a nail directly into the video monitor, but what was to stop you? The great thing about the work was that the choice was yours.

Some of the artists in the show, curated by Carol Parkinson and Neil Zusman, used interactive works to explore subjectivity through differing participant responses. For instance, Yoshi Wada’s What’s the Matter with Your Ear?, 1991–92, allowed you to conduct a mechanical orchestra by pushing various buttons that activated such “instruments” as a coffee grinder, a windshield wiper, a chintzy drum kit, and a suspended steel barrel hit by hammers. The idea was that there is nothing intrinsically pleasurable in any given sound: its affective value depends on the conjunction of sound-producing mechanism, listener, and context.

Denise Mortillaro’s Ahmandhia’s Telematic Embrace, 1992, served a somewhat didactic function, like an interactive display at a science museum. Ahmandhia is Mortillaro’s on-line moniker (i.e. the name she uses when she communicates via computer), and her piece was a software program called a Hypercard stack that introduced the user to the wonderful world of telematic communication. In one stack, for instance, you learned how to leave electronic mail for the artist; in another, you learned the etiquette of “smileys,” electronic shorthand such as :) (look at it sideways).

But didactic interactive work always has the potential to slip into the Pavlovian, as in Brent Scott’s Plexus, 1992, in which a graphic of a woman’s sleeping face was presented on a large screen. When you touched your finger to a small interface, it showed up on the screen as a red dot and the woman woke up. By moving your finger around, you induced certain responses: boredom, excitement, etc. The point, however, was to learn how to make her orgasm: the machine not only responded to your touch but trained you to push the right buttons (unless maybe you’re sadistic or frigid or technophobic and you didn’t want to make Plexus climax). Is sex the great paradigm of an interactive future when you will be able to talk to your car, immerse yourself in virtual reality, or in other ways have intercourse with your smart machines? When Scott says that “the machine becomes a reasonable surrogate for human contact. It is less threatening than one-on-one encounters,” it sounds less like great sex than electronic diddling.

Keith Seward