Aesthetics of Interactive Art

Cham, Karen (2006). Aesthetics of Interactive Art. In: Fast Forward: Art history, curation and practice after media, 22nd Annual Conference CHArt-Computers and the History of Art Group, 9-10 Nov 2006, London, UK.



Any discussion of aesthetics and interactivity must first transgress the divide in modern western art history between art and technology. Despite the fact that technical principles have always underpinned fine art production (rules of perspective, proportion and the golden section for example) photography, film, television and video are still marginalised in art historical dialogues. The mechanically reproduced artefact is easily dismissed in a discourse where value is still equated with dubious concepts of authenticity and originality anchored in production techniques.

For example, whilst video art has been part of the art world since the1960s when artists such as Nam June Paik brought the TV set into the gallery, the aesthetics of video is still neglected in art theory. Not only can video artefacts be mechanically reproduced, but the potential for mass access or worse still, mass appeal, is assumed to negate the exclusivity essential to establishing an aesthetic value.

Digital artefacts manifest these two problems of reproduction and access to an even greater extent. A digital artefact, by conventional standards, is even less authentic and original than a mechanically reproduced one; a true simulation, a mathematical model of the real. Furthermore, not only is the digital artefact accessible by the masses, it is very often interactive, i.e. shaped by audience input; a product of ‘the mass’ themselves.

These material factors should not inhibit an academic discussion of the aesthetics of interactivity. An aesthetic value is always established by the consensus of an elite. In media studies for example, textual analysis of televisual artefacts clearly demonstrates that whilst television might appear generally accessible and understood by everyone there is quite clearly a relative, yet elaborate, aesthetic code operating within a wider, still elite, cultural context. In such a way it is easily possible to demonstrate various aesthetics of photography, film, television and video.

In the same vein, interactive media artefacts abound in our day-to-day lives. This paper will argue that for academic dialogues to embrace the aesthetics of interactive art in a constructive and meaningful way the intellectual prejudice against reproduction and access must be abandoned. For example, how can one seriously analyze the aesthetic of Edward Ihnatowicz’s ‘Senster’ (1970) without the context of contemporary science fiction when it is a fifteen-foot high hydraulic robot with a triple proboscis of sensors for a ‘head’?

Only in this way can the use of wholly appropriate theories from media and cultural studies ensure that the technical skill of commercial producers, the narrative dexterity of on-line gamers and the visual eloquence of the television audience are accounted for in both interactive art production and theoretical discourses on new aesthetics.

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