Digital Society Forum Digital Society Forum
Dossier 06/06/2016

When artists get the public involved

Is public participation in the work of recognised artists, particularly in music and the visual arts, an illusion or a more profound phenomenon? Here, we review the different aspects of the concept of interactivity, which is no newcomer to the world of contemporary art.

From 17 to 21 February 2016, strange luminous signals lit the skies of Paris. They weren't made by eccentrics trying to communicate with outer space. They were, in face, an installation by artist Samuel Bianchini in front of the Palais de Tokyo, and the signals were going out to you from other anonymous individuals! The installation, Surexposition , a vast black metal monolith extended into space by a beam of white light, looked like something out of Stanley Kubrick's film 2001: A Space Odyssey. But there was more to it: one of the sides of the monolith displayed messages which spectators submitted via smartphone in luminous letters. These notes, written by everyone and for everyone, were instantaneously translated into Morse code ("one of the first types of coded communication," as the artist reminds us), on the screen, in the sky, and in music, thanks to the speakers on the installation and spectators' phones. A real-time map of mobile network usage projected on the ground, designed with Orange engineers and designers, completed the "collective and artistic experience" created by Bianchini.

The installation would not exist without the visitors' participation and the messages they send from their phones. Samuel Bianchini is one of the masters of this digital, interactive genre. Is this approach an exception, or is it common? And what are the different types of public participation in creations?

Marketing interaction in mainstream culture

"You are all superstars! You inspire me!" Lady Gaga wrote to her fans, in a 2011 advertisement for the web browser Chrome, composed of covers of her song Edge of Glory as sung and danced by her "little monsters." To mark the release of her album Born this way, also in 2011, the singer - the 50th most followed personality on Twitter, with 45 million subscribers - asked her French fans to show their personality on video, to her single of the same name. The fans who created her three favourite videos (out of the 30 most viewed) received a prize from her in person at a private party.

This form of interaction with the public is a marketing technique, known as collaborative marketing, which is used by mainstream stars. It is, however, based on a real shift: fans have become closer stars. They can reach out to them on social media, take selfies with them, and cover their songs and dances. However, these communities and their covers (even mocking or negative ones) play a major role in audiences. An emblematic example, and the biggest musical hit to date on YouTube with 2.5 billion views: Gangnam style by Psy. A song which would never have moved beyond world of Korean pop music, or K-Pop, without the myriad creations generated by the public - and legally authorised by the artist and record company.

Coldcut, an instrumental hip hop group which was one of the pioneers of sampling and founded the label Ninja Tune, was one of the first to welcome covers and remakes of its songs. In 1998, with its album "Let Us Replay,'" it even provided the public with a CD of audiovisual samples to use in amateur productions. More broadly, public participation in creating "secondary works" based on a unique "primary work" (like Psy's) is only rarely anticipated, even if it is encouraged. Because in most cases, in a purely marketing-based approach - of which Lady Gaga is the ideal example - fan participation is used minimally, on the fringes of the creation: to distribute , promote and defend it. In short, to create a buzz. With no public actions on the work itself.

Levels of creative interaction in contemporary art

At the other end of the spectrum we find Net Art, which is nourished by public participation. Net art, which refers to interactive works created by, for and with the Internet using the web (html, peer to peer), e-mail, social media, software, and 3D, transforms the relationship to spectators. But while digital has breathed new life into the idea of participation, artists were already doing it decades earlier.

As early as the 1930s, Alexander Calder's mobiles and Marcel Duchamp's work revealed a desire to play with public perception. The 1960s saw the emergence of kinetic art, where the spectator and his or her environment become a part of the installation (the active area of mobiles, for example). In "Perception", an exhibition hosted by the Créteil contemporary art museum as part of the "Exit" festival in April 2016, Korean artist Jeongmoon Choi played with the optical illusions seen by spectators as they walked through a dark space structured by fluorescent wires which recall the aesthetics of video games.

Over the decades, as digital technology advanced, artists used participation to varying degrees: from experiments with perception to immersion in installations that blend 3D and reality, or the creation of works as a network. In 1983, in the earlies days of the Minitel, Roy Ascott proposed a ground-breaking work entitled La plissure du texte (the fold in the text), the first networked art project: visitors to 16 museums around the world (America, Australia, Europe), were invited to create a fairy tale in real time, which was shown on projectors in each of the cities involved. In the same vein, Reynald Drouhin's project Des Frags (2003) destructs and reconstructs the internet through images. Web users can use a dedicated application to associate one of their own images with a keyword, and shortly after receive an email containing their image, reconstituted from a multitude of images gathered online. In other words, the public creates the work with the network through its choices, and the artist coordinates the whole ensemble.

Works orchestrated as collective experiences

In these new kinds of productions, the public's actions activate the installations and create their meaning. These creations are both aesthetic and operational, designed not as finished products but as systems or processes shared with the public. The creations of Fred Forest, a multimedia art pioneer and "flow arranger," are thus difficult to display. One of his first productions, in 1972, is revelatory. He replaced an advertisement in French newspaper Le Monde with a blank space (Space-Média). Below appeared the words: "A newspaper is generally a finished object. Today, this page stayed open. It's up to us all to express ourselves freely."

"In most cases, the installation alone is not the work. It needs the public," explains Bianchini. This re-appropriation of artworks gives new responsibilities to the spectator turned participant: "the ability to conceive, propose and invest these images has become a political necessity, to prevent their instrumentalisation in the service of a single meaning," he adds. Even the artist's responsibility is transformed: the artist becomes the conductors of the public's creativity, in a dynamic similar to that of midwifery. An attitude which is difficult for both the artist and the public. While no studies currently exist on the topic, it seems that visitor involvement in installations does not always come naturally. It requires skills, generates commitment, and is out of the ordinary.

"Participationitis" or a new understanding of the public?

As this participative philosophy expands, mainly in multimedia and digital art and particularly during events like Les Nuits Blanches, certain theorists are raising questions. Are these installations just gadgets? "Participationitis is devouring the whole sick body of contemporary art," at the expense of contemplation, says Norbert Hillaire, a professor and specialist in the relationship between art and new technologies. Like capitalism replaces objects with services without undergoing any profound changes, isn't this openness to the public just a figleaf for contemporary art, which essentially remains a show?

In addition to these suspicions of marketing and a loss of meaning, Fred Forest has raised another criticism. He argues that the basic concepts developed by artists in the 1970 (presence and remote action, ubiquity, actions and behaviours, networks of remote participants, etc.) have not been transcended but simply updated or even standardised using digital technology, as though digital applications had created a dearth of artistic reflection, when it could help to "change the world."

Jean-Paul Fourmentraux takes a more optimistic approach, believing that these innovative participation techniques are perfect for our era and highlight the pitfalls of our connected society. One example: artists who seek out bugs or disorientation by creating artistic viruses, mid-way between art and a political statement. LAN, a group of artists and designers, created Trace Noiser, an informational clone generator. The work generates false profile pages and distributes them across social media to disguise users' identities. While most these artists have little or no impact of the general public, they perhaps have created the beginnings of a renewed form of our, unique to our era. Mashup producer Julien Lahmi sums it up in these words, "with digital tools and the visual environment [...], spectators can no longer be simple consumers."


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