On Art, Interactivity and Tactility
“I have secretly caressed paintings in museums, shaken hands with statues…” This line from a song called “The Tourist” recently caught my attention. 1 Is this an expression of projected affection? The confession of a madman? An account of innocent touristic pranks familiar from travel snapshots? Or is it a deliberate subversion of received codes of behavior with – perhaps – ideological implications? As it turns out, the protagonist of “The Tourist” is a loner, “a man lost in his hometown.” Touching paintings and sculptures is a compensation for the lack of a human touch that he has been searching for “in wrong places.” Touching the untouchable, crossing the line, avoiding the public eye. Our experiences in public spaces often include the temptation to ‘exceed the limits,’ at least for a passing moment. Such actions often involve the hand. I have met ‘normal’ people – including artists – who occasionally practice shoplifting. Not for profit or the need for anything – the stolen object is something insignificant, like a piece of gum. For such people the act of shoplifting is more like a sleight-of-hand that challenges the limits of the permissible. It is also a test of one’s agility and “guts,” bringing to mind the lonely endeavors of Robert Bresson’s Pickpocket (1959). More determined challenges are the “para-legal” arts of street graphics and graffiti that often spring from alienation. They represent the need to “make one’s mark” and to assert one’s presence while remaining anonymous, a shadow figure. Posting notes or spraying tags is linked with tearing down, covering, replacing. These acts are part of an unfinished/able urban semioclasm, a palimpsest taking place anywhere where bills are posted and bare walls – potential surfaces to be filled – are available.
Among the countless acts of the hand – creating, saluting, caressing, driving, destroying and indeed, shoplifting – those related to the experience of art may seem the most insignificant. We have been taught that artworks belong to the category of objects (including, in fact, the heated stove) that should not be touched. They are “for the eyes only.” “Tactiloclasms” are deeply embedded in social and institutional codes that regulate behavior, particularly in relation to “high“and “profound” values (the “high culture”), as well as sacred rites and religious objects. Why is touching an artwork considered a taboo, almost a “sacrilegious” act? The issue can be approached from various perspectives. First of all, it reflects the persistent nineteenth century idea of the artwork’s double identity as a work of genius and as a marketable commodity. An artwork is a trace of the artist’s “divine” inspiration and therefore only partly material – as a sublime object of contemplation it should be kept beyond the reach of “dirty hands.” This situation was strictly codified and legitimized by the aesthetic theories of the nineteenth century. Keeping distance from the artwork was declared an essential precondition for the aesthetic experience itself. At the same time an artwork was increasingly seen as a form of property, whether belonging to a museum or a private collector. It was endowed with material values that had to be protected, bylaws as well as by alarm systems and unbreakable glass panels.
As self-evident as it may seem, this has not always been the case. As Constance Classen has shown, touching museum objects, including paintings and statues, was customary in the seventeenth and the eighteenth centuries. 2 The earliest museums were successors to private collections and cabinets of curiosities that had been open to a selected few. During a guided visit, touching artifacts was not only allowed but often encouraged. Visitors were offended if their “right to touch” was denied. This reflected, of course, the privileges of the ruling classes. Things changed when the “masses” were invited and even incited to enter the museum. Now the objects were enclosed in transparent cases and paintings put behind glass; uniformed guards were introduced to enforce order. The new museum had educational imperatives, but it could not rely on already shared codes of behavior. The “masses” that crowded the city streets, fairs, marketplaces, pleasure grounds, and – increasingly – sports stadiums were used to tactile communication. 3 Within popular culture, physical tactility had been a normal way of knowing, communicating, possessing, challenging and bridging difference for centuries. The “taming of the masses” required a new discipline to enforce respect for boundaries, however transparent and fleeting these seemed to have become in the increasingly “democratic” and urban society. In this regulated realm, the attacks on artworks that occasionally still take place at museums in spite of all precautions may, in fact, be more than occasional “psychotic” deeds of a madman. 4
Let’s invert the perspective for a moment, and focus on the hand of the creator. In Christian iconography we often encounter the topos of the hand appearing from above. The hand mystically pointing down from a cloud obviously represents superior power – to create, demolish, warn, punish. Its appearance makes the world of humans shrink, until it looks like a miniature “diorama,” puppet theater or children’s playground; transformations so beautifully analyzed by Susan Stewart. 5 Echoing the tradition of religious illustrations, the hand appears, once again, during the opening credits of Roberto Rossellini’s La macchina ammazzacattivi (The Machine that Kills Bad People, 1948), handing down model houses and trees, an entire village. Obviously, the supreme puppet master is setting the stage of the teatro del mundo for another performance. In the story itself the mystical power of the hand is transferred to Celestino (Gennaro Pisano), the humble village photographer, who makes a miraculous – and horrific – discovery: his sudden ability to “freeze” any living thing permanently with his photographic apparatus. An appropriate way to punish “bad people,” but is there anyone who deserves to be left “unfrozen”? It becomes evident that Celestino’s power to decide over the lives of the others “the Kodak way” is not that of god, but of his nemesis – the devil.
Ever since I saw the film years ago, I have been intrigued by the link between the interfering hand, Celestino’s camera, and media culture. The film has usually been interpreted as a metaphorical depiction of the ambiguous power of cinema, and it could be read as another manifestation of the “tricks of the devil” topos as well. Yet the role of photography in it also evokes the uncanny phenomenon of spirit photography, the subject of a recent major exhibition. 6 Not only did the hands of the spirits appear on exposed photographic plates; the camera was believed to be able to capture the spirit world itself “in action.” The materialistic-positivistic counterpart of the nineteenth century spirit photography was chronophotography, a scientific effort to reveal the secrets of the human body in motion. No spirits were involved; the body was understood essentially as a “machine” in the tradition of de la Mettrie. It is highly interesting that one of Étienne-Jules Marey’s and Georges Demeny’s series of chronophotographs from the 1890sdepicts hands of magicians. 7 Their micro-motions have been captured in sequences of frozen moments, imperceptible to the naked eye. The hand – captured by another hand pushing a button – has become the center of observation for a cool scientific gaze, and yet it refuses to remain a mere physiological fact to be optically dissected and analyzed.
Whether intended or not, these hands evoke the cultural acts of sleight-of-hand they had been trained to perform. Perhaps the most intriguing of all such acts was ombromanie, the art of hand shadows. The hands of Félicién Trewey, the master “ombroman,” produced surprising metaphors, puns and visions in front of the audience, projected in “real-time” as transforming shadows on the screen. 8 As an attraction, Trewey’s hands were as important as the figures they created. In another popular form, the Lightning Sketches, the hand, now holding a pencil as an interface, created metamorphosing drawings on a blackboard in front of an enthralled audience. 9 The Lightning Sketches became an inspiration for one of the first “genres” of silent cinema, where the hands of the master draughtsmen, such as Émile Cohl and Winsor McCay, performed even more fantastic feats with the help of cinematic trickery. The presence of the drawing hand, often playfully competing with its own creations, became a staple of animation films for decades. In all these cases the “magic” of the hand emanates from human ingenuity and skill, joining the secular tradition of “natural magic.” Whether “barehanded,” or coupled with a technological “prosthesis,“the human hand had appropriated the role of the miraculous hand operating “from beyond.”
The hand of the artist (“hand in hand” with that of the natural scientist) had been gaining power at the expense of the hand of god ever since the Renaissance. It had come to signify the ability of humans to design and master their own destinies without divine intervention. The hand of the artist represented superior human craft and his eye a visionary ability to transcend the purely material. Such hand-eye coordination reached its culmination in the Romantic cult of the genius, soon thrown into a crisis by the appearance of photography. A photograph seemed to have been produced without human intervention, with just a little help from chemistry and optics. A mechanical eye replaced the human eye(s), and the hand was only needed to expose the photographic plate. Yet, it is interesting to note that Fox Talbot characterized photography as “the pencil of nature,” implying that nature’s own “hand” was somehow responsible for producing the image. In spite of its scientific and mechanistic basis, early photography gave rise to metaphysical connotations, amply manifested by the wide appeal of spirit photography. It took some time before it was clearly understood that the photographer’s mind and will were indeed actively involved in the creation of the photograph. New technology did not replace the hands or eyes of humans; it merely extended their potential into unforeseen directions.
In classical cinema the hands of the spectator played no role – the moving images were distant, and their presentation was “automated.” One “entered” them by developing an imaginary relationship with the screen world. It was the eye of the spectator that penetrated the invisible“fourth wall.” A change began to occur with the introduction of the television. The spectator’s hands were now more actively involved – switching knobs or pointing at the screen with a remote control. Yet the outcome of such actions was limited. It was only with the emergence of interactive media, such as computers and video games, that the hands were given a more versatile, active, and creative role. Instead of just selecting a channel or switching the apparatus on or off, they began to negotiate the media experience, modifying it and adding their own contributions to the mix. The need for coordination between the hands, eyes, and ears reached new levels; rapid bodily reactions and quick reasoning were needed or “the game was over“almost as soon as it began. The emergence of interactivity as a cultural force meant a formidable concentration of power to the hands. Indeed, interactive media could be characterized as a tactile phenomenon par excellence. Although the hands don’t always physically touch a keyboard or a “touch screen,” the user’s body motions are playing a crucial role. Without corporeal action, nothing happens; the application remains just unrealized potential.
The introduction of interactive “new media art” into museums and galleries has brought about changes for the relationship between art audiences and artworks. The artist’s hand has relegated part of its creative freedom to the visitor’s hand. The tactiloclasmic tensions that reigned in the traditional art museum have been released, at least partly – many exhibitions now contain artworks that are meant to be touched. This does not apply to interactive computer art alone. Rather, interactive art is part of a wider phenomenon that has multiple determinants. Historically, it is an outcome of the efforts made by avant-garde movements such as Futurism, Dadaism, Surrealism, Fluxus, E.A.T., Conceptualism etc. to question the traditional art object, and to “bridge art and life.” 10 Interactive art draws inspiration from multiple sources – work, entertainment, communication, design, education, engineering and science – transforming and synthesizing these into new aesthetic experiences. Its debt to the traditions of “fine art” certainly exists, yet references to this art are often less evident and merged with other influences. Therefore it is understandable that interactive art has not always been wholeheartedly embraced by critics who have a more traditional notion of art and the values it embodies. In spite of the postmodern questioning of boundaries between “high” and “low” culture, interactive art is often treated as an alien; an intruder that can, at best, be tolerated.
From an institutional perspective, exhibiting interactive art and other works that invite the visitor’s touch could also be justified by commercial reasons. In today’s hyper-competitive marketplace, the art museum has to compete for “customers” with institutions such as theme parks, science centers, sports stadiums, concert halls, shopping malls and, increasingly, technologically saturated private environments. The museum must be able to relate the experiences it offers to already familiar forms of behavior and culture. At the same time, it has to guard its own territory and maintain its identity as distinct from the “experience industry.” Emphasizing tactile communication may be a way of attracting new visitors to the art museum, as was demonstrated by the success of Game on, an exhibition of fully playable commercial video games, organized by the Barbican Gallery (London) some years ago. Yet, combining behavioral modes derived from everyday life with unfamiliar ones is challenging. Working in a stressful situation where the stakes are high, the museum may find it difficult to draw a line between aesthetically and conceptually uncompromising experiences and pre-digested “art entertainment.” Before opening the gates to“anything tactile,” it is necessary to ask some basic questions. What is essential in the art experience? Silent contemplation? Forms and colors? Themes and stories? “Touch of eternity?“Sensational attractions? Visiting a “place” with family or friends? Or, perhaps, the discovery of something new and unprecedented through interaction and touching?
Exhibitions dedicated to “interactive” or “tactile” art are still somewhat rare in the “art world,” but artworks with interactive and tactile features appear regularly in mega-events such as the Venice Biennale, displayed together with works that encourage more “distanced” (read: traditional) modes of reception. While this polarity could be fruitfully used to stimulate the visitors, the effect often seems the opposite – confusion and discouragement. Many exhibitions of contemporary art now provide behavioral instructions and warnings strategically placed next to the artworks. 11 Typical examples are the frequently seen “Please touch” and “Please don’t touch” signs. While often necessary, such signs can also be read as pointers revealing an institutional disciplinary logic that may be even more rigid than before. The fears of the art institutions are, in the end, financial. The idea of being sued by an offended or injured visitor may be as nightmarish as a damaged artwork. The occasional permission to touch is something nerve-wrecking, because it introduces a potentially subversive mode of behavior that could be mistaken for a license to touch – and do – anything. Therefore it must be kept strictly in control. If the notices on the walls fail to do it, surveillance cameras, beeping alarms, and uniformed guards are always present as “backups” to enforce the order.
It may sound like a soothing conclusion – or perhaps an anticlimax? – to claim that these fears are partly unfounded. The “museum discipline” is internalized rapidly, even by newcomers who have little previous experience with the art world, its regulations, and its conventions. Schoolchildren may cover the city walls with graffiti in their spare time, but they don’t try to scribble on paintings or carve their names on statues in museum halls. Accidents will happen, but deliberate pranks are uncommon. All this makes me believe that the transgressive actions described in “The Tourist” are really only poetic metaphors with no basis in reality. But this does not make them less real or potential.
- Tuure Kilpelaeinen: "Turisti" from the CD Just, Grandpop Records, 2005 (Finland). I would like to thank Juhani and Sari Linnainmaa for pointing out this source for me.
- Constance Classen: "Touch in the Museum" in The Book of Touch, edited by Constance Classen. Oxford & New York: Berg, 2005, 275-286.
- See my "Slots of Fun, Slots of Trouble: An Archaeology of Arcade Gaming" in Handbook of Computer Game Studies, edited by Joost Raessens and Jeffrey Goldstein. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2005, 3-21.
- The recent attack on Marcel Duchamp’s ready-made Fountain (1917) by Pierre Pinoncelli was explained by the attacker as "a wink at Dadaism," an effort to "pay homage to the Dada spirit." Pinoncelli had already made another attack on the same piece years ago. His attack represents the most "art history conscious" case of those that come to my mind. Although Dadaism itself wasindeed an attack on the rules reigning in the traditional art world, it does not seem to have influenced the value system around art very much: the court had no tolerance for Pinoncelli’s actand gave him a three-month suspended sentence and a fine of €214,000 ($ 262,700). Fountain itself was "slightly cracked." Reuters reported all this on its website on Jan 24, 2006.
- Susan Stewart: On Longing. Narratives of the Miniature, the Gigantic, the Souvenir, the Collection. Durham and London: Duke University Press, 1993.
- The Perfect Medium. Photography and the Occult. Edited by Jean-Loup Champion. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2005.
- Laurent Mannoni: Etienne-Jules Marey: La mémoire de l’oeil. Milano: Mazzotta / Cinématheque francaise, 1999, 307-309. While Marey himself shot chronophotographs about hands, the seriesabout magiciens’ hands was, according to Mannoni, realized by his collaborateur Georges Demeny.
- See Jac Remise, Pascale Remise and Regis van de Valle: Magie Lumineuse du théâtre d’ombres à la lanterne magique. Tours: Balland, 1979, 294-301.
- Donald Crafton: Before Mickey: The Animated Film 1898-1928. Cambridge, Mass: The MIT Press, 1984, 49-57.
- For a detailed treatment of this topic, see my essay "Twin-Touch-Test-Redux: Media Archaeological Approach to Art, Interactivity and Tactility," in Media Art Histories, edited by OliverGrau, Cambridge, Mass: The MIT Press (forthcoming).
- A good example of the complex issues raised by this situation was the exhibition Ecstasy: Inand About Altered States, shown at The Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, October 9,2005 -February 20, 2006. Although the majority of the works on display were non-tactile and non-interactive, there seemed to be much confusion about "touching or not touching." I visited the exhibition four times, documenting the notices, observing audience behaviour and having conversations with museum guards. See my essay "‘This is not an Interactive Piece,’ Freedom, Control and Confusion in the Art Gallery," Framework: The Finnish Art Review (2006).
Professor Erkki Huhtamo’s recent work has dealt with media archaeology, an emerging approach he has pioneered (together with others, like Siegfried Zielinski) since the early 1990’s. Media archaeology excavates forgotten, neglected or suppressed media-cultural phenomena, providing us a powerful “tool” for assessing the phenomena underlying media history. Huhtamo pays particular attention to the “life” of topoi, or the cliched, commonplace elements providing “molds” for experience in different times and places. What is “new” in media culture can, paradoxically, often be discovered by excavating what is – seemingly – self-evident and obsolete. In recent years, Professor Huhtamo has applied this approach to phenomena like peep media, the notion of the screen and mobile media. In October 2005 he gave an invited lecture at REFRESH! The First International Conference on Media Art Histories, Science and Technology (Banff, Canada), analyzing the ways in which contemporary media artists have applied media-archaeological approaches. In December 2005 he will give, together with the acclaimed media artists Golan Levin and Zachary Lieberman, a lecture / performance in Tokyo, inspired by the late 19th century “lightning sketches”. Professor Huhtamo is currently working on two books, one on the moving panorama as a forgotten mass medium of the 19th century and the other on the archaeology of interactivity. He is the editor (together with fellow UC professors Doug Kahn and Margaret Morse) for a new book series entitled “Technoculture and the Arts” for the University of California press.
This text first published in 2006 in the Broad Art Center Exhibition Catalogue, UCLA, Los Angeles.