michael naimark

Ars Electronic Catalog
1994, Linz, AUSTRIA


Interactive Art and the Myth of Everything-ness

Michael Naimark

April 1994

Interactive technologies have become in vogue (finally!). The business and press communities have proclaimed them the next Big Thing. But there's something that's been bugging me about all this enthusiasm.

Go to one of the many interactive/multimedia/virtual reality conferences or festivals and listen for how words like "everthing" and "all" and "entire" are used.

"You can put everything the user will want on a single CD-ROM."

"Entire libraries can now be instantly accessed."

"All the world's art can now be seen by everyone in their homes."

I asked a colleague once about this last statement. We were involved in a large educational "everything disc," and he intended to put all of art on one section. I asked him how many laserdisc stillframes he planned to allocate for the world art section. He mumbled a few numbers and declared "1,200." I pointed out to him that some college art history texts make mention of 1,200 artists or more, so at most he could exhibit only one image representing the entire life of each artist (and couldn't even use a picture of the artist as well).

I don't mind the naiveté. But I do mind the implication that producers of interactive material don't need to make decisions because they're giving the user . . . EVERYTHING. This is worse than being dishonest wth your audience: it's being dishonest with your self.

For better or worse, I was one of the early rant-and-ravers of interactive technologies in the arts. (In 1980 I earned more income giving presentations about interactivity than producing!) The artworld, the mainstream artworld, was initially skeptical. Much of this is natural and healthy, a critical eye toward the new. Good art ultimately is judged by surviving the test of time. The hype around interactivity was often overwhelming. And most mainstream artworlders didn't have enough frame of reference to stick their necks out.

But there's a deeper reason, I think, for a resistance to interactivity, and it stems from Michelangelo famous statement "I see the figure in the marble and I will free it." This declaration of "I talk, you listen" set the stage (in the West, at least) for artist-as-creator and art-lover as passive learner. The artworld saw interactivity as, well, flakey. It was used by artists who didn't have a strong vision or couldn't decide how to finish.

We've now had a good fifteen years of artists exploring interactivity, and as we've seen in the Ars Electronica jury, there's some poetic and provocative work emerging. But we must learn to be both critical and enthusiastic if we expect interactive art to stop being an oxymoron.