Gjis van Oenen: Affect, Direct, Reflect from Interactive to Interpassive Art

For: A Wedge between private and public
Symposium in interactivity and public space
22 April 2010
SESSION 1 – Affect

Report by Juliana Brunello

What does interactive art do to, with and/or on behalf of us? Gijs van Oenen thesis to this (these) question(s) is that this represents a function of the processes of the Enlightenment and Modernity. It is a function in the historical sequence of activity, interactivity and interpassivity. They represent ways of dealing with the impacts and challenges of the modern world.

Van Oenen’s presentation at the symposium brought up many interesting points, which I will try to summarize the best I can. I divided his speech in four parts:

  1. Enlightenment
  2. Modernity
  3. Interactivity
  4. Interpassivity

1. The Enlightenment (and Modernity) affects mind and body.

“Don’t let your mind/body be directed by the world, instead, dare to think for yourself” was a motto of the time. According to the German idealism, the mind constructs the world by means of understanding it through concepts (Begriffe). This way, we make the world our own, it becomes no longer alien to us. Instead of the world directing us, we direct the world.

2. Modernity (beginning of the 19th century) involves a constant making over of the world and of ourselves.

Everything is in motion. The bourgeoisie class, which is central to modernity, has to change all the time as well, in order to stay the same. This means, it has to continuously reinvent itself in order to keep up with the world, which is constantly being made, remade, produced and reproduced. “All that is solid, melts into air”.

Change in this period goes together with speed, and both are related to technology. In modernity, technical and social processes are being speeded up. “Nobody ever invented a machine to slow things down”.

Technology, speed and change make new regimes of perception necessary in order to understand and appropriate the world. As a consequence of that, positive sciences, like biology and sociology, emerge. This new regime also affects the body . Processes of modernity makes our bodies to be literally projected to the world, like a projectile. The world begins to be impressed to our bodies in a much greater speed and force if compared to how it has been before. Machines of projection and impression are e.g.: trains, automobile and the cinema.

Mind and body have to learn how to deal with this new regime, which leads to new forms of creativity (arts, technology, etc.) on the one hand. On the other hand, there is an overburdening of the senses, which leads to failures to deal with challenges imposed by the world. Walter Benjamin speaks of the loss of experience and concentration; and Georg Simmens of the blasé tendency of modern city life. What they mean is that all expressions that hit us in modernity make us construct a defensive screen. We become unimpressed in order to protect ourselves from this world filled with strong impressions, from a world that presses upon our mind and body and demands more and more from both.

From the 1920s onward, people have been actively conditioned to become fit with the demands of modernity and emancipation. Modernism on the cognitive level manifests itself in the social policy making, which shapes the world to match the new demands. Processes of discussion, feedback and reformulation have emerged from this process.

Space has also been influenced. It is now designed to let us take part in modernity. Parts of the world are projected to be of public experience and high speed; others to be private, healthy and functional. The environment must reflect modernity values in order for us to act like we are supposed to in modernity.

3. In the era of interactivity (1970s), not only the bourgeoisie, but the ordinary people must become involved as well.

Interactivity is the new norm. People are affected by policy plans. Everybody must feel they have a chance to be heard and people become co-producers of policy. Institutions of social life become interactive, including art, which has now its realization through participation. E.g.: Yoko one: cut piece. The public becomes part of the self realization of the art work.

Interactive arrangements transfer part of the activity to the visitor and the visitor becomes part of the self-realization of the art work. Art becomes engaged with the public and society; and simultaneously, the public becomes involved with modern art performances. Visitors are transformed from passive expectators into active collaborators. The public becomes more emancipated than in the old fashion way. Interactive art arrangements create a partnership of equals between artists and expectators, they become co-dependent.

E.g.: of shared responsibility artist-public and the incorporation of technology can be seen in the work of art telematic dreaming by Paul Sermon: This installation is about the physical and emotional reaction of both visitor and actor. The principals of emancipatory and democratic involvements are being here strongly extended.

4. Interpassive arrangements (mid 1990s): While interactive arrangements transfer part of self realization and activity to the visitor; interpassive arrangements take them back.

The work of art is now watching itself. E.g.: screens that look at each other, shutting the visitor out. The visitor is now redundant. The work of art, as well as the political sphere, has learned to pre-anticipate our reactions, by means of monitoring, measuring and surveillance.

The philosopher Baudrillard writes about ‘pulling fate’, that means being confronted with the anticipatory verification of our behavior. “Our action has been already verified before we actually act”. How should we characterize this part of the interaction that has been taken over by the art work? Is consumption being outsourced by the art work?

E.g.: Outsourced enjoyment: the artist that offers to drink your beer and enjoy it for you, or the iPod that watches TV on your behalf. This way we get rid of our passivity by delegating the enjoyment to other people or machines, so we can continue to be busy elsewhere.

Van Oenen cites three ambivalence of interpassive behavior:

  1. Enjoyment and horror by the realization of a desire that is not meant to be realized. It leads to a confrontation with undesirable consequences.
  2. We don’t really know if we want to outsource the enjoyment.
  3. Believe is transferred to others. “Others believe in it”. Believes are claimed by no one.

G believes that interpassivity implies the outsourcing of actity/interactivity and that Interpassivity arouse due to the success of interactivity. We feel overburdened by our interactive emancipated life, which constitutes what he calls an “interactive mental fatigue”. We fail to act and to answer to the demands of modernity, which are of interactive kind. We develop a kind of resistance to what is happening to our society. It is not that we are dissatisfied with principles of emancipation – we want to live up to it. We are, however, not able to. “We want to have a holiday from ourselves”.

Function of interpassive arrangements and art:
Interpassive works of art present us with directions that we are unable to give to ourselves. They direct us. They incorporate interactive scripts and steer our behavior. They are like a road block that makes us slow down. This is, by the way, the same direction we want to give to ourselves, but fail to produce due to our overburdened state. Issac Asimov points out that robots do not desire for power, but seek to assist us, pushing us to the right direction.

Our environment is nowadays increasingly interpassive shaped. Unforeseen consequences must now be dealt with. We must now be persuade to norms we have already agreed on, but fail to follow. Interpassive artifacts are here now to correct us, not to teach. Interpassive art works affect us, but so not direct us. They make us reflect on our interpassive condition, bring to light our interpassive condition.

An example of interpassive art work (is it art?) in public space is the flash mob, mobilized in real time through for instance sms. They involve a collection of random people, on a random place, to perform a random activity. This is part of a mobilization strategy. Will it shape our political sphere as well?