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What is Interactive Art?

By James Doehring
Updated May 16, 2024
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Interactive art is any type of art that involves the viewer in the creative process. Interactive art attempts to challenge the traditional boundary between artist and “audience”. It may use a physical medium, as in the case of installation art, or it may be purely digital and Internet-based. Interactive art often uses computing power to govern responses to viewer actions.

The art movement of the early 1900s in Europe and North America laid the groundwork for the emergence of interactive art. People began questioning the role of the artist, work, and viewer in art. French-American artist Marcel Duchamp may have created one of the first examples of interactive art with his 1920 device Rotary Glass Plates. His machine used a motor to spin rectangular pieces of glass that had segments of circles painted on them. When viewed from a distance of 3.28 feet (1 meter), an optical illusion of full circles was formed.

Technology usually factors prominently in interactive art. For a work of art to be interactive, it must have some way of sensing a viewer’s actions. This can be in the form of physical sensors or, in the case of Internet-based art, computer input devices like the mouse. The work typically must also have a specific way of responding to inputs. Often, a large number of outcomes are possible with much room for viewer interpretation.

Some works of installation art are interactive. Interest in creating interactive installations surged in the 1990s when digital technology became sufficiently advanced. Embedded sensors in interactive installation art can respond to temperature, motion, or proximity of the viewer to offer a unique experience. Physical works of interactive installation art are increasingly being exhibited in the museum setting.

Interactive architecture is the idea of a designed environment that uses some kind of computation to manage physical responses with users. Some of the groundwork for interactive architecture stemmed from work on cybernetics, the study of regulatory systems, in the early 1960s. The digital advances of the following decades made interactive architecture both technologically and economically feasible. Interactive architecture is a new and evolving concept, but it shares much in common with interactive art.

Video games are interactive applications, but some critics challenge the suggestion that they constitute interactive art. Often video games have very little room for the user to influence the creative dimensions of the game, such as the plot. For example, there may be only two possible endings to a game: victory or defeat. In this case, many critics charge that the game is not art because it is not open-ended.

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Discussion Comments
By tigers88 — On May 03, 2012

I saw a show at a big museum in Chicago last year that I guess you would call interactive art. You went in to a room where there was a small screen. The screen invited you to place your left thumb on the screen and then it scanned your thumbprint into a database where it was stored. In front of the little thumb printing screen there was a huge projection screen on the wall.

Once your thumb print was scanned it got sent to the projection screen were it was added to a huge, slowly growing image of George Washington. You have probably seen something like this before, a picture that is made of thousands of other little pictures. The more people contributed their thumbprint, the more detailed the picture got. I got a real kick out of it. My husband was less thrilled.

By nextcorrea — On May 02, 2012

I went to an interactive art workshop last year. A lot of what they were focusing on was creating interactive art for the web. It was an all day workshop and we talked about both theory and logistics. It is one thing to have an idea, it is another to pull it off.

Some of the most interesting interactive art being done anywhere today is being done online. The potential for the web as an interactive tool is huge. And, because it exists in this temporal and malleable space, the experience for each user can be truly unique.

By Ivan83 — On May 01, 2012

A friend of mine was involved in an interactive art piece recently. He did not create the piece but he did the computer programming that allowed it to work.

Basically, the viewer would enter a room where they were invited to text anything they wanted to a certain number. When they sent a text to that number the words appeared in huge letters on the wall. The minute someone new texted in the old words would disappear to be replaced by the new ones.

It was an interesting experience and an excellent example of interactive art. It was simple but deceptively interesting and revealing. You entered and then wondered, "What will I text?" You would read other people's writing and wonder "Why would they text that?" It was clever to say the least.

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