[-empyre-] Richard Rinehart: Participatory Art

Timothy Murray tcm1 at cornell.edu
Wed Jun 24 23:28:52 EST 2009

From: Richard Rinehart <rinehart at berkeley.edu>
To: Timothy Murray <tcm1 at cornell.edu>, renate ferro <rtf9 at cornell.edu>
Subject: Fwd: Invitation to Join "Participatory Art: Digital 
Traces,": -empyre-in June

Richard Rinehart
Participatory Art

The early to mid 1990's saw the expansion of the Silicon Valley 
bubble, the birth of the "Internet" in the mass media ala the Web, 
and not coincidentally an explosion of net art. Though it was often 
critical of the bubble and it's attendant hype, net art just as often 
was not, and in fact was caught up in the same 
psycho-cultural-linguistic storm. "Interactive media" ruled and the 
term "interactivity" achieved an absolute positive moral value. 
Adding "interactivity" to anything made it better, from education to 
gaming to art and the more interactivity, the better yet. I think 
this is understandable because interactive media became the latest 
mirror reflecting of our shared aspirations about democracy 
simplistically rendered as the most interactive (read: participatory) 
form of government. There remains some truth to this equation, but 
more often than not it seemed simplistic and worse, misleading, with 
numerous examples of the viewer/voter being granted the illusion of 
agency in both art and politics. "Interactive media" became 
"interactive art" and this somehow implied a binary state in which 
any given artwork was, or was not, interactive (in the same way that 
the cold war mindset held that a government was either wholly 
democratic and participatory or dictatorial and exclusive.) I've been 
conflating the terms "interactive" with "participatory" art here, and 
though one could be said to emphasize media and the other people, I 
propose that they are actually just relative historical terms for 
speaking about the same egalitarian aspirations.

All artworks are interactive of course, but with regards to media 
art, we can further define a continuum, rather than binary state, for 
interactive or participatory art, that might look something like this 
(going from less to more interactive):

A. Linear Navigation (or sit-back-and-watch art) that function like 
traditional film, such as John Simon's "Every Icon"
B. Non-Linear Navigation in which the viewer makes some choice about 
the unfolding/pacing of the work such as Ben Benjamin's "Superbad"
C. Artworks that allow the viewer to change the form of the work, 
albeit in a temporary, solo manner that snaps back after the browser 
closes. Eva Hasa's "Henry" comes to mind.
D. Artworks that allow the viewer to change the form of the work in a 
more lasting manner, usually by contributing/adding content, such as 
Chris Bassett's "Lost Love Project".
E. Works that allow one to not only add (ensuring the continuation of 
the work) but also to take away, reduce, or delete, thus implicating 
the disappearance of the work, such as Peter Edmund's "Swarm Sketch".
F. Lastly, those works that allow the viewer to alter some of the 
fundamental parameters of the work and thus become more than viewers 
or even "participants", but rather co-creators. Radical Software 
Group's "Carnivore" project or Lisa Jevbratt's "LifeLike" project 
come to mind.

Caveats about the above framework. It's not definitive, especially 
since it also suggest a binary simply stretched out, but I'm 
suggesting that interactivity or participation are not simply 
switches that can be turned on or off in any given artwork and this 
"Rinehart's Ladder of Interactive Art" is simply one way to 
illustrate that notion. It implies that neither end of the continuum 
is more virtuous but simply represent different strategies. It 
further underscores the notion that some level of interactivity is 
built-into (unconscious) in all artworks in a kind of anti-Friedman 
statement that holds all artworks are contingent upon the viewer to 
complete them.

On that last point, all artworks in whatever media are inherently 
interactive, so what, if anything, does new media art bring to this 
equation? Well, there might actually be a couple of things. 
Interactivity in art is a useful technique for modeling power 
relationships through the exchange of agency. New media art certainly 
adds to the artist's toolkit whole new ways of modeling agency and 
power, thus expanding the art vocabulary. More specifically new media 
art seems naturally inclined to do what traditional media art is not; 
that is to actually record the trace of the viewer's interaction; 
that is to *remember* each specific interaction and each specific 
participant and to incorporate that trace for others to view and 
react to, etc. There are two implications here. One is that the 
artwork is itself transformed by interaction; interaction can be 
cumulative over a long term and social rather than solitary and this 
may change the quality as well as quantity of interaction. Secondly, 
new media art is good at remembering specific interactions and their 
authors. Past artworks like Gonzalez-Torres' "Candy Spills" took 
gallery art to a new level of participation, but even these flattened 
out "the audience" into one undifferentiated mass whose impacts the 
artwork remembers like a scar.

I think that net art 2.0 (or whatever generation we're in now) is 
increasingly leaving behind the myth of "interactivity!" and going 
for more nuanced, focused, or purposefully limited participation in 
order to form accurate models that are not inflected with automatic 
value judgments. We're entering the era of post-interactive media 
art, art that holds the potential to expand our vocabulary for 
talking about social and power dynamics and to recognize, remember, 
and build upon individual experiences.

Lastly, all of the above leaves it in the hands of the artists, 
audiences, and artworks to "be interactive" or participatory, but I'd 
like to suggest in closing that there might be a role for the 
institutions of art to likewise re-consider notions of participation 
by taking advantage of some of the unique properties of media art. 
For instance, the Open Museum is an emergent project at UC Berkeley 
that would offer access to an open-source archive of media art that 
allows a kind of access to artworks not possible with physical 
objects and suggests art can be deployed, en masse, in new ways well 
beyond our current limited notions of "exhibition" or "research". It 
remains to be seen how far institutions are willing to go with any 
particular idea in reality, but they are also implicated in all this 
participation, surely.

Richard Rinehart is Digital Media Director & Adjunct Curator at the 
UC Berkeley Art Museum/Pacific Film Archive. Some of his projects and 
papers can be found at http://www.coyoteyip.com.


Richard Rinehart
Digital Media Director & Adjunct Curator
Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive
University of California, Berkeley
2625 Durant Ave.
Berkeley, CA, 94720-2250

Timothy Murray
Director, Society for the Humanities
Curator, The Rose Goldsen Archive of New Media Art, Cornell Library
Professor of Comparative Literature and English
A. D. White House
Cornell University
Ithaca, New York 14853

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