Art as Experience: Meet the Active Audience part 2

published: December, 2006

Slightly refined version of the thoughts expressed in No Ego. This essay appeared in the book Network Art, ed. Tom Corby, Routledge, 2006. Second part.

A few years ago I wrote about how the experience of music has changed as a result of the combination of the computer and Internet in a text called “Musaic.” In it I suggested that the role of the composer, artist and author has become obscured inside a machine which gathers reception, manipulation and the sending of data in one place. The audience is now more or less equipped with the same tools as the artist, and is therefore capable of easily copying, re-interpreting or even replacing the artist’s work with their own productions. Slowly this practice is gaining ground and musicians have to decide to what level they want to keep control over their work or in what way they wish to present it. Copying and literal quotation from music is a common practice since the early 1980s and the combination of the computer and the Internet has added a dimension of speed and availability these approaches. As such, the audience can take the musicians’ place, and also that of the (radio) DJ or even the critic; he or she can become a musician, DJ or critic. We see a similar development in the arts online, with the important difference that it seems as if there is less of a replacement of the artist, but rather the generation of an almost intimate art experience for the audience.

Contrary to a persistent belief, which says that art on the Internet is hard to understand or engage with (due to its mediated distance and technological “nature”), Internet art is totally dependent on engagement and can only show itself to its full advantage by virtue of the active participant. This type of media artifact has been called “pull media”, the opposite of “push media” such as television—a term which illustrates the efforts of the audience in new media environments. Without an audience which adds content, navigates, reacts or accepts an invitation for participation or an invitation to make use of a specific work nothing happens, and more importantly, without this there is practically no art experience. By default, through contact with the Internet’s architectures, the audience for art on the Net is brought into a closer relationship to the person and works of the artist, and a step away from the aloofness of the traditional museum.

Nicolas Bourriaud has noted a similar dynamic occurring in off-line artwork in his book Relational Aesthetics. Bourriaud (who is unfortunately largely unaware of art in new media) has recognized a historical process across all the arts whereby “the constitution of convivial relations has been a historical constant since the 1960’s.” Instead of just reacting or responding to a changing perception of art, artists have started to interfere in the perception process itself by anticipating the audience’s movement. The artist now uses or guides the audience’s movements and is steering its perception and interpretation of the work. The best way to capture the attention of the audience is by showing hospitality, by creating playful and interesting spaces of engagement. So, even though the audience is left as free as possible to engage in this interpretive process, the artwork is still the creation of the artist. It is a considered space of engagement into which the artist invites the audience, not an entirely free domain of action and interpretation in which participants have equal influence on the works final form and meaning. These environments develop a personal relationship between artist and audience, even if this relationship at times represents only a shadow of the concrete realities of real person to person interactions. This is commonly called interactivity, a problematic term which has already been discussed and criticized in numerous ways. Computers allow the possibility to adjust or design to what degree information can be manipulated, or can be controlled at wish, by the author/artist. In the terms of this discussion the extension or the distributed presence of an artwork on the Internet results in a certain kind of openness, arising from the possibility for the audience to view, adapt, change or interpret the work at will via computers and information networks.

Internet experiments with total openness, for example, projects that are based on the “wiki” format (which allow users to change or add to the contents of its pages), are opposed by the practice of “capturing” an audience in experiences in which the only interaction consists of the ability to switch a particular process on or off. However we can find many different levels of interactivity between those two extremes.

A very subtle form of interactivity takes place within the work of Austrian artist Lia. These pieces appear like abstract animations of organically evolving shapes and lines. Unlike traditional animation, they depend on the audience for their shape and existence. The role of the audience is that of initiator of movement, through the use of the mouse. However the work avoids the normal paradigm of button clicking or navigational interaction by inviting the user to develop a more reflective relationship. In doing so the artist plays with our expectations as to what interactivity should be. The generated structures develop slowly as lines that appear fragile. One wonders if the artist is really demanding our attention at all, or whether her work is waiting for the moment it comes to life by itself, through some form of miraculous digital evolution. In a work, made in 2003 for Jonathan Lisle, the user is involved in a process, which is at the same time the cause and killer of a form which looks like the birth of a beautiful mildew colony. It grows and moves away from the mouse pointer and disappears completely if one clicks the field, only to grow again. While the work is available via the artist’s website, she also uses it in live contexts such as clubs and festivals, in which it plays a performance role in its combination of sound and vision. The accessibility of online works of this nature also indirectly changes the role of a live audience at a performance. Audiences are now initiated actively into the world of the artist by the availability of her work online, and become possible collaborators through their ability to access similar tools as those of the artist.

The most obvious form of interaction is the collaborative project. One of the most famous online examples is not often recognized as a work of art, although it was initiated as such. The media art Rhizome was initiated by the artist Mark Tribe in 1996 as a mailing list, text archive and database, for and about art. Mailing lists are tools for publication, collaboration and discussion. Their archives offer a wealth of texts and an insight in history that is chaotic, but lifelike in the manner that they reflect social process. Indeed Tribe considers Rhizome to be a form of social sculpture in the manner first proposed by German artist Joseph Beuys, who conceived of certain forms of art practice as an interdisciplinary and participatory process made up of discursive social materials, i.e. conversation. Similarly democratic in intent, Rhizome has thousands of members or subscribers of which a few hundred are active participants. The project has turned into the most influential media art source online, not so much as an art project itself, but as a source of art, information, criticism and even theory. This is a project, which not only has given its participants a space to create their own addition to the project Rhizome, but also to the histories and theories of media art itself. As a result of this Rhizome (and other similar Net communities that started as art projects, like nettime and The Thing) is hardly recognizable as an artwork anymore, and has become something else entirely. In Rhizome the audience has dissolved into various levels of participants, into a social order organized around its activity within the work. In effect it has become an institution. Even if Rhizome is still more flexible and approachable then most art institutions are, its change into an institution affected the status of the audience-participants. They are now clearly submitted to a hierarchy in which a professional editorial team dominates.

The French artist Mouchette has created her own universe online . She introduces herself as being a young girl of thirteen years, who wants to commit suicide. Originally based on a movie by French filmmaker Robert Bresson, Mouchette’s persona has developed slowly since 1996. The artist behind the site chooses to remain anonymous, yet Mouchette is in close contact with her audience through her website and email address. The site is divided in different sections, in some of which the audience can leave messages. One particular section deals with suicide and has become a meeting place for depressed teenagers, who exchange thoughts there. The topic is controversial, and Mouchette has received a number of complaints from worried parents. However it is carefully edited and avoids sensationalism, which makes the project compelling, and moving.

Another project, which connected physical space and cyberspace in a spectacular manner, was Blinkenlights (2001-02) by the German hacker organization Chaos Computer Club (CCC). In this project audiences could use software written by the CCC to create small movies consisting of computer pixels. Rather than display these movies on a small computer monitor they were played on the facade of a building in Berlin Alexanderplatz so that its gridded window architecture stood in for the image matrix of the screen. The result was not just available for the local Berlin audience; a webcam showed the results live online, so people could send movies from anywhere in the world and watch the results through the Internet. A wide variety of projects were submitted ranging from personal messages to loved ones, to political satire. Visually spectacular projects that, like Blinkenlights occur in public space, offer not only a publication platform for an already technically knowledgeable audience, but also operate as an educational experience, and inspiration for those not familiar with participatory forms of art, i.e. they have a didactic as well as an aesthetic function.

Each of these projects are different in look and feel, yet each of them asks for a level of engagement that is more then just the simple activation of a process. They stress that participation in art projects is not a dry concept, but an act of personal engagement that requires a willing subject who feels the need to act within or for the work. The interpretation of art is not in the first place a professional task. It is a social or personal exchange with the work of art. This has been described in literary theory as reception aesthetics or reader response and in music theory.

The art context has splintered through the use of personal media and computer networks. It has not simply decentralized and it has not partly dematerialized. A more direct connection between artist and audience has been established, and also between artist and other artists, critics and curators, which has changed and personalized relations between them. This is particularly the case for the artist-audience relationship. The relations between artists and other artists, critics and curators were of course always a subtle mix of social and professional connections, and current changes in these relations are of a different nature. One might say that the common denominator in this process is that they follow the rules or characteristics of the medium. In an environment in which the network is the most important means of establishing presence, instigating process of social communication is a pre-requisite of practice. Even a website, which at first sight seems a stable structure in space and time compared to email or other overtly active data transfers, reveals this process. Its development shows all manners of things about its owners: their technical abilities, their lack of time and money, their awareness of context, their openness, and more. A mediated presence always depends upon processes of communication, and when dealing with “pull media” communication and engagement are unavoidable.

Technology and Art
The technological aspect of art created in or through the sum total of new media has been overexposed in media art circles, but at the same time it was misinterpreted (rather then underestimated) in the traditional art world. Dealing with technology of any kind within art projects, presentations and preservation always asks for a certain amount of effort, and in the case of electronic devices this is no different. At first sight, it might seem as if media art professionals have fetishized the electronic, but the skeptical position of mainstream art professionals towards technologically situated art, which sometimes reaches the point of total rejection, is just as technology oriented. The reality of the technological influence in art lies between these two extremes. The Canadian art critic Jeanne Randolph has developed a criticism of what she calls “the Technological Ethos” or society’s obsession with the appearance of our alleged progress: virtual reality goggles and gloves, personal computers, the latest mobile phones, etc. The Technological Ethos is “an ideology in which human experience is defined and represented exclusively in terms of goals to be achieved as efficiently as possible.” It informs the way we look at the world and often also our lives. Randolph calls it a dualism which divides everything into easily defined categories in which every problem is treated as if it were a technical issue. Questions about art are unfortunately dealt with this way as well, and if new problems arise from this process of simplification they are often discarded.

I would like to return now where I started, namely the circular movement, the dance of interpretation, in which artist and audience each take their turn. From the first moment I encountered Internet art, I have been convinced that the much hailed interactivity of new media was not about clicking buttons or riding a bicycle in an installation, but about engaging in a work socially or personally. The Internet is, as curator David Ross once said, an intimate space. In it we find the same tension between closeness and distance we found in early modern art. Maybe this is one of the reasons why Boris Groys suggested that the Internet did not, as many have claimed, accelerate reproduction to a dazzling high, but in fact brings back the original in art. This sudden implosion of the reproduction environment has in fact scattered the mass experience of art, and returned art interpretation to a more local, even personal level. Having left the shared space of the museum, we are at home or in our office, or maybe even alone at a computer in a museum. We are engaging, participating, creating, manipulating and being manipulated. The realignment of the art context within the personal; in which we are inside the art context, inside the artwork even, is the ultimate experience of art and of art consumption. As Dutch art critic Jeroen Boomgaard put it “[t]he issue today is sensitization rather then emancipation.”

We appear to be in a “Perpetuum Mobile” situation, constantly moving between original intent behind an artwork and freedom of interpretation. The tension of the contemporary art discourse lies inside this movement—in relations between art institutions, artist and audience. Mainstream art institutions have been slow to respond to a present day emergence of a non-institutional and only partly professional art debate and practice and only seem comfortable with political and critical art that does not ask for any structural adjustments or changes from the art institutions themselves.

The experiments in twentieth century “expanded art” tackled specific questions around originality, authorship, the boundary of the artwork, and the role of art itself. We have now entered a phase in which artists’ distance themselves further from the object in order to develop zones of interpretation. The audience is invited to view the development of an art project or participate in it outside of obvious art contexts; in their homes, workspaces, or in public space. The very term environment in this sense appears to be undergoing a shift in definition, as described Jeroen Boomgaard:

The expression ‘this is art’ has been replaced by ‘this is a message.’ The accurate response to this is not the pessimistic culture-nagging that seems to be in fashion, but a further-reaching reconnoitering of this starting point and the consequences of it for the role of art.

Making the process of the production of an artwork accessible, overlaps with a desire on the part of the audience to enter a world of originality and creativity—even if this desire is often just superficial. The audience wants to join the imagination of the artist, and it wants to sympathize with the artist, his image and the development of the artwork. It does so by entering processes and experiences created for this purpose. The artist often does not know exactly the consequences of this invitation, and is sometimes not even aware of the extent of her hospitality. It is not a problem. These works of art are an invitation to a process that, in the end, everybody experiences differently.

Special thanks to Matthew Fuller, Dirk de Wit and Tom Corby for their comments and suggestions.

-----numbers before notes have disappeared.. youll have to be creative-----

Zielinski speaking at the Transmediale festival, February 2005, Berlin.
E. Kluitenberg, “Frequently Asked Questions about the Public Domain,” in Sarai Reader 01, Raqs Media Collective and G. Lovink (eds), Delhi: Sarai, CSDS, and Amsterdam: The Waag Society for Old and New Media, 2001, p 17.
E. Kluitenberg, private e-mail correspondence (29 June 2004).
G. Lovink, “The Importance of Going Public—A Proposal,” in Absolutely Public, Crossover: Art and Architecture, S. Lehmann (ed.), Australia: Images Publishing Group Mulgrave, 2005, p.47.
G. Lovink, private e-mail correspondence (30 June 2004).
I. Arns, Netzkulturen, Hamburg: European Publishing House, 2002, p.47.
L. Liang, Guide to Open Content Licenses, Rotterdam: Piet Zwart Institute, 2004, p.7.
Graham Harwood interviewed by the author for the Internet newsletter Cream, Issue 7, Spring 2001. Online. Available HTTP: (accessed 12 October 2004).
See for example; L. Manovich, The Language of New Media, Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2001.
W. Benjamin, Das Kunstwerk im Zeitalter seiner technischen Reproduzierbarkeit, Frankfurt a/M: Suhrkamp Verlag, 1977, p.29.
T. Adorno and M. Horkheimer, Dialectics of Enlightenment, London: Verso,
C. Greenberg, “Avant-garde and Kitsch," in Art and Culture, Boston: Beacon Press, 1961.
See various cultural studies texts, for example; F. Mulhern, Culture/Metaculture, London: Routledge, 2000, p 141.
For example in the comparison between blockbuster exhibitions and art salons, whereby the salons are usually held in higher esteem then the larger exhibitions.
Collaborations often happen on a project by project basis, but contacts can continue well beyond them. For example, grassroots new media art institutions such as, Public Netbase in Vienna, Rhizome in New York, Ljudmila in Ljubljana or Sarai in Delhi, each of which collaborate with art institutions worldwide.
“Musaic” was published as part of the online exhibition Crossfade (2001) a collaboration with ZKM Karlsruhe, the Walker Art Institute in Minneapolis and the San Francisco Moma.
N. Bourriaud, Relational Aesthetics, France: Les Presses du Reel, 2002, p.30.
When part of an art project is on a computer server (i.e. on the Internet) and another part is in the real world or in other media I refer to an extension of a project from one space into another.
As in the sites of (which is a leftover of the famous media lab Desk in Amsterdam) or wikipedia (the online, collaboratively built encyclopedia).
As in the animation of Dutch artist Han Hoogerbrugge or a sequence of images which form a kind of short movie, for example, the work of the Korean-American artists, Young-Hae Chang Heavy Industries.
Lia’s website. Available HTTP: (accessed 24 January 2004).
Rhizome. Online. Available HTTP: (accessed 3 March 2004).
Mouchette’s website. Available HTTP: (accessed 4 January 2004).
Blinkenlights, Chaos Computer Club. Online. Available HTTP: (accessed 7 June 2004).
U. Eco, The Role of the Reader, Explorations in the Semiotics of Texts, London: Hutchinson, 1981.
K. Cascone, “Grain, sequence, system,” in The Laptop and Electronic Music, K. Cascone (ed.), Abingdon, Oxfordshire : Routledge, Taylor & Francis, (Contemporary Music Review, vol. 22, part.4 ), 2003.
J. Randolph: Symbolization and its Discontents, Toronto: YYZ Books, 1997, p. 41.
Randolph, Symbolization, p. 90.
David Ross made this comment in a lecture at the San Jose University that was published in the online magazine Switch; See: D. Ross (1999) “Lecture transcription,” Switch. Online. Available HTTP: (accessed 19th October 2004).
B. Groys, “A short introduction to conjuring with data,” DU Magazine, 2000 November, issue 711. He writes, “I contend that the Net does not operate, as is commonly believed, with copies, but rather with originals—exclusively with originals[…]The Net functions by means of a process opposed to that of reproduction. If reproduction makes copies out of originals, that is, the Net makes originals out of copies.”
J. Boomgaard, Nieuw Bericht, Geen Boodschap, Conventies in de hedendaagse kunst, (translated from the original Dutch), Rotterdam:Witte de With, 2001. P.64
Boomgaard, Nieuw Bericht, p.64.