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don't "talk to me": MoMA and interactive art

chris crawford's definition of interaction -- which he repeats several times throughout the first chapter of the art of interactive design -- is as follows: interaction: a cyclic process in which two actors alternately listen, think, and speak.

going by this definition, and the examples provided in his book, there were actually a good deal of works in MoMA's "talk to me" exhibit that were NOT interactive.  and the exhibit itself, while billed as an exploration of the "communication between people and objects," was surprisingly reluctant to actually allow people to interact with these objects in the manner intended.  [note: i would definitely like to go back for a second viewing, because i am sure i didn't pick up all the nuances of every work in one 2-hour visit -- but here are my first impressions about the nature of the exhibit.]

the biggest way in which i saw MoMA as actually hindering the exploration of interaction as an art form was simply in its format.  it tried to present these works as a standard museum exhibit, when in reality they needed an entirely different method of display.  for example, the "talk to yourself hat" and the "muttering hat" -- coincidentally, two ITP projects! -- were pieces that i would have absolutely loved to try on and play with for myself.  unfortunately, i couldn't... due to the fact that they were under glass and therefore inaccessible to the public.  i would have loved to take "notepad" under a magnifying glass to see the miniscule text that made up the (pretty subversive) work, but the piece was in a display case and -- in what i saw as a major misstep -- didn't even have a magnifying glass put to it in the case, so viewers weren't actually able to see the work in action.  instead, we got a video and we were supposed to assume that the notepad in the case was the same as the one in the video, without being given a chance to see for ourselves.  this type of frustration was underscored by the omnipresence of the "do not touch" signs around the exhibit, as illustrated above.

there were also specific works in the collection that i saw as being interesting examples of digital art -- or commentary on interactive media -- without actually being interactive themselves.  "export to world" was a cool idea -- making icons in the game second life into actual, tangible objects that one could find around town -- but according to crawford, wouldn't the encounter of these objects in the real world only count as a reaction?  the piece seemed more like a commentary on the increasingly blurry line between role playing games and reality, and not so much an actual interactive work.

  "augmented (hyper) reality" was incredibly interesting to look at, but ultimately, that's all one was able to do.  the piece was a short film, and so ultimately the only thing the audience can do is take in knowledge -- we didn't have a chance to "speak" to the project and engage with it.  similarly, the two clock videos -- "analog digital clock" and "sweeper's clock" -- didn't really have a mechanism through which a viewer could participate in the action.  all you could do was sit back and watch the video.

granted, there were some pretty great displays of works that were fully interactive, if not accessible right there at MoMA.  i was pleased to see a fully-functional metrocard vending machine in the gallery:

i thought that this was a great example of interactive design that truly works and actually makes people's lives that much easier.  i also loved "transgenic bestiary" -- a set of pieces that were each identified with a specific animal's DNA, that could be mixed and matched at will in order to enable the user to see whether the resulting animal was genetically plausible.  (granted, i wish i could have used them myself!)

I thought "SMSlingshot" was pretty great, if a little impractical.  It seemed like a really fun toy to play with and, if paired with another in another person's hand, could be a really cool, creative way to relay information back and forth while also kind of taking ownership of the physical properties and characteristics of the city that someone lives in.

one work that i really loved was "dead drops," in which the artist installed several USB drives into walls, allowing passerby to upload and download as they wished.  here's a video of me demonstrating the piece:

crawford might not necessarily called this piece "interactive" in the true sense of his definition -- after all, isn't this really just a reaction to what the artist has done?  but the piece makes it possible for us to interact with each other -- suddenly, my photos are in the hands of a complete stranger, and his documents are in mine.  if the piece does what it's intended to do, it's taking in someone else's thought, processing it, and then returning a thought of your own for him or for someone else to do the same with.

similarly, i thought that "out of the box" was one of the most clever and practical works in the whole exhibit.  the idea is to create a how-to book that includes all the parts to assemble a cell phone.  the user would then be taken through, page by page, and explicitly instructed on how to assemble the phone.

crawford excludes books from his definition, but isn't this book interactive?  it's allowing the user to take in information, while at the same time providing information back to the book (in the form of putting the pieces where they are supposed to go).  the book might not literally be "thinking" about the pieces that the user is placing in it -- each copy would likely be identical and therefore grant the user an identical experience, regardless of the differences present in each user -- but isn't the exchange of information there?

in his book, crawford said something that really stood out to me as the core of what interaction really is.  and it's not his personal definition.

"active, direct involvement always demands greater attention than passive observation...people identify more closely with it because they are emotionally right in the middle of it." - the art of interactive design

at the end of the day, interaction to me is all about the difference between activity and passivity.  and my viewing of the pieces in "talk to me" underscores that, i think.  interactive media and design is all about getting the audience to become actively involved with the content, rather than passively taking it in without opportunity for input.  that input can be radically different for various things -- something as simple as pressing a button or as involved as writing a post on a message board -- but at the end of the day, interactive design's creative process allows the user to become a part of it.  rather than simply showing itself off, it invites the audience to make it better.

pcompRoopa Vasudevan