URBAN SCRAWL #15: You Complete Me — Interactivity and Meaning in Visual Art

URBAN SCRAWL #15: You Complete Me — Interactivity and Meaning in Visual Art

by Shana Nys Dambrot

fridaSalman Rushdie has said that “a book is not completed till it’s read,” and over the years, I’ve heard visual artists say similar things. The idea is that each new reader or viewer brings with them a set of internal circumstances like mood and memory, as well as external ones like geopolitical context and what else is visible nearby. When Rushdie talks about a work being finished through collaborations with strangers, he is referring to the finality of its meaning. Like the Heisenberg Principle in physics, the mere act of observation changes the observed. Because of the infinite variations of these and other factors, it could be said that the meaning of a given work of art is freshly created at every moment in ways beyond the artist’s control — whether they like it or not. Some artists embrace the unknowable possibilities of a malleable meaning, some resist it, but it happens nonetheless. But not even Rushdie is suggesting that the viewer physically, literally completes the work. His collaboration with the audience is metaphysical.
frida21-232x300At the next Create:Fixate (Magnetic), we get a chance to see what happens when the artist means it for real — when the work of art is literally not finished until it meets its audience, because they have a physical role to play in its completion. A special section of Magnetic is devoted to “Interactive Art” — an exciting and popular genre in which technology is frequently enlisted in such a way that the audience actively affects the formal, aesthetic outcome. Through movement, speech, button-pushing, soundwaves, projection mapping, photosensitivity, and a million other things I only partly understand, the viewer makes it go. They are sometimes in direct control and asked to make choices, and sometimes merely witness the effect they are having on pre-determined variations. Either way, it’s usually pretty engaging, and popular — and this collaboration is exactly what the artists intend. They’ve embraced the fact that the viewer has a role to play, and they’ve made room for this element in the work itself and invited everyone inside the creative process. In a sense, this kind of interactivity is itself the subject of the work, those moments are the content, acting paths to new creation at every turn, privileging the presence of the viewer in a way that articulates Rushdie’s idea, and highlights the fact that each new viewer makes a new work of art, just by being there.

The technologies available to contemporary artists can make this sort of thing pretty spectacular; but when I hear “interactive” I always think about Frida Kahlo, and her painting “Fulang-Chang and I” from 1937, which hangs at the Museum of Modern Art in NYC. I’ve seen it a lot, growing up in NYC, checking in on this and other of my favorites on every visit. I always call it “Frida & Me,” but everyone knows what I mean. It’s a diptych. One part is a lovely self-portrait of the artist and her pet monkey. The other is an identically framed mirror of the same size, hung at the same level — eye-level, so that everyone who pauses in front of the painting sees themselves staring back off the wall. What you end up looking at is yourself and Frida side by side. Every time someone looks, the work changes into something new, is finished all over again, and has a new aspect of its meaning. People carry these meanings away with them, feeling that the artist was waiting for them, and needed them there to move the story. Both physical and metaphysical, it’s as interactive as it gets, and using just paint and glass.