Wednesday, March 21, 2007

modern art: an unexpected swirl down the virtual toilet and why it's the best thing since sliced bread.

Believe it or not, this title is only about 1/3 fecitious and actually 2/3 accurate.

Perhaps it also is an approximation of where I'd like to begin discussing this article's intended subject.

Oh what subject, might you ask?

Last Thursday I had the pleasure of attending the
The MOCA Shanghai Remote Control Exhibit
. Needless to say I thoroughly enjoyed my visit even though I'm not always inclined to enjoy the visual arts. But the 'remote control' component of the exhibit title might just be exactly why I enjoyed this exhibit more than most other art gallery exhibits I've seen: The remote control exhibit is interactive. And to me that makes all the world in the difference as I will explain.

Just to give you an idea of my vast (cough) expanse of art knowledge...well, I once asked gallery attendants at the Van Gogh museum in Amsterdamn if they had Van Gogh's ear on display anywhere and if so whether or not I could see it. Yes, I'm still waiting on that ear.

But the Remote Control exhibit is an example of the direction that I assume contemporary art is destined to follow. This was an entirely new experience for me as I have no prior experience with actual interactive art - and I think it is exciting both for practical and ideological reasons. My title anecdote about the virtual toilet was actually inspired by a piece at the remote control show. The piece is called "Fountain" and is the creation of Du Zhenjun (both creation and designed can be seen in the picture to the right and the original picture may be found here). The picture doesn't clearly portray the nature of the exhibit so I well do my best to explain. "Fountain" is an interactive art exhibit which responds to a viewer stepping on a hidden floor switch, animating a computer screen pointed upward towards the viewer yet embedded in a cube on the floor - auspiciously rather like a toilet. The computer screen responds to the viewer's pressure on the floor switch by showing a stream of liquid (closely resembling urine) pouring into the pictured toilet bowl. At this point the critical reader might ask "what in the blazes does a virtual toilet have to do with interaction and groundbreaking art?" to which I must quell my immediate response (don't be a philistine, loser) and more maturely reply that this is visual art that can only be performed by interacting with the viewer, merging a piece of the viewer's private (and inner bathroom) life with the larger museum as a whole - making a pleasant spectacle of bodily functions, the viewer and even the public space of the museum itself.

Interactive art allows for a highly personalized interpretation of a given piece based on the viewer's opinion even moreso than perhaps the artist's original intention. Of course with any given art piece individual interpretation and criticism will always be present, but the nature of interactive art is highly personalized to the 'essence' of the viewer because the viewer often enough becomes a part of the piece. A great example of this would be the "Brainwashing as a kind of Entertainment" piece by Alexander Brant. I really wish I had a picture of this piece in particular, but even a visual example of this piece would not do it justice. The viewer is strapped into a spinning carousel and shown a generic amalgamation of news segments, contrived pictures purporting supposed common value archetypes, and occasionally the words "I agree" in English. The ride is quite disorienting and will last indefinitely until the viewer presses a large button attached to their rotating chair saying "I Agree" in English or "我同意" 在中文。After demonstrating willingness to ritually sacrifice individual opinion, the viewer is allowed out of the exhibit accompanied by a dark monotone voice that booms "You are now a good person" in English followed by ”你现在是一个好人“在中文。Overt political statements aside, my immediate reaction is that I can't believe this is actually allowed to be publically shown in China. My next reaction is to applaud the museum for being willing to support such a potentially controversial piece. I would imagine this piece touches each viewer differently, reaching out deep enough to shake the human desire to communicate as an individual. This piece, as like the piece before it, interacts with the viewer in a three dimensional space on the viewer's terms of engagement. Each piece's automation will end as soon as the viewer decides the time is appropriate, ultimately letting each spend as much or as little time is needed on a given exhibit.

In the English major tradition students are taught that once a piece is written it gains a 'life' and sort of autonomy of its own. I believe this is the same for interactive art - except that the idea is actualized in the ritual of interaction with the viewer. The piece slips out of the artist's reach and into the hands of the viewer. They too share part of the artist role as their interaction with a given piece is a form of authorship in and of itself.