Interactive Art: Digital or Physical?

Lev Manovich’s The Language of New Media gave me a new outlook on what makes a piece of art interactive. In discussing “What New Media is Not,” Manovich points out that the interactiveness of new media is not, in fact, new.  Classical (and modern) physical art is interactive, just as any art or text or object on a computer screen can be interactive. Although traditional media seems like it is “fixed” in one physical space, there are many different interactions that can take place between the artwork and the viewer (Manovich 66-71).

In pieces of writing, ellipses persuade the reader to fill in the blank. In visual art, such as paintings or drawings, missing details allow the viewer to create his or her own interpretation of the object. With sculptures, the viewer must move around the object to experience the entirety of the piece. In cinema, film montage (also known as the Kuleshov effect) requires spectators to “bridge mental gaps between unrelated images” (Manovich 71). Interaction with artwork is not just for the new media enthusiast.

The interactiveness of art is not defined by digitization. Any art that requires an audience to interpret, ponder, wonder, question, discuss, debate, and, even, lose sleep over, is interactive art. Interaction can by physical, such as between a computer and a user, but it can also be mental (Manovich 71). I would even argue that a mental interaction is more valuable and meaningful than a physical one because it challenge’s ones intellect more so than, say, just clicking through a multitude of images. An object does not have to be physically or virtually touched or altered, by the viewer, to be considered an interaction. An interaction can exist solely within the mind.

Now my question is: if we can have these meaningful mental interactions with physical art, then what is the purpose of digitized art? Digitized art solely exists because we have the technology to make it exist. I’m not saying that new media art is not valuable–in certainly is, just in a markedly different way. Digitized art becomes more of a physical interaction, but it can consist of a traditional mental interaction as well. Like all art, effective new media art relies on the author’s artistic capacity to create a piece of art so astounding that it can alter and befuddle the mind of the viewer.

Manovich, Lev. The Language of New Media. Cambridge, MA: MIT, 2002.

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