It is often difficult to discuss contemporary art without some kind of justification for its very classification as ‘Art’. Most modern artists are not oblivious to the popular criticism that ‘a child could have done that’. However, this insult may become increasingly meaningless if the current trend in interactive art continues to flourish. It seems more and more likely that in many new shows, a child may well have been crucial to their creation.
As part of its commitment to digital projects, the Tate Modern last week revealed a new addition to the gallery: interactive screens, allowing visitors to respond to and critique works, as well as create their own pieces. Any amateur artists’ dreams of being hung on Tate’s walls can now be realised.
The Tate is no stranger to participatory art, with the iconic Turbine hall allowing visitors to stroll through, touch, even climb on pieces. From Dominique Gonzalez-Foester’s iron bed frames to Carsten Höller’s giant slides, many of the recent exhibitions have actively encouraged visitor activity. This interaction is not restricted to the centerpiece of British contemporary art but is widespread; in Edinburgh’s Talbot Rice gallery, the current Nam June Paik exhibition allows viewers to see themselves on screen. Indeed, some works rely completely on outside actions, as in the case of Yayoi Kusama’s ‘Obliteration Room’, which saw a white space – a 3D blank canvas – overrun with circular, coloured stickers.
We’re in a world where heavy political or philosophical thought and breakfast time banalities are granted the same 140 character public platform. Every whim or opinion can be immediately expressed. The notion that “all the world’s a stage” has perhaps never felt so accurate. We are becoming used to being able to interact with and influence everything we encounter. Is this expansion in performance and interactive art a reflection of our twitter-happy digital age?
The traditional relationship of artist and viewer appears to be shifting, even breaking down completely. Playful art projects perhaps once restricted to children’s galleries – keeping the youngsters busy while the parents perused the Impressionist painters – are now fully legitimate. Performance art, site-specific sculptures and collaborative, changeable pieces, which once belonged to the fringes of the art world are now firmly part of the establishment. The revolutionary approaches that marked artists of the 60s as subversive are now mainstream. Art works are no longer static, but are unfixed products. The image of artist as outsider seems to be eroding, with Michael Craig-Martin (teacher to Emin and Hirst) proclaiming that “everybody is an artist at heart”.
Is this shift from viewer to actor cheapening contemporary art? The Tate is marketing its digital drive as an innovative artistic movement, in keeping with the rapidly updating world. But if “everybody is an artist” does this in fact mean that no one truly is? If artworks are unstable and unpredictable, how will they contain or convey fixed ideas or themes? Are we about to witness the death of ‘The Artist’?
This is the fear. But it may prove an irrational one. Every age after all has its artistic crisis points – the rise of photography was heralded as the killer of painting, yet Peter Doig’s huge oil canvases currently dominate the National Gallery. The involving immediacy of interactive pieces make them dynamic and magnetic. It is hard to dismiss works that literally force your attention. This is art that is not just intellectual, but bodily – it is the person, their experience and their reaction that are the themes played with. Contemporary art’s purpose is to engage with and respond to contemporary culture. In a digital, interconnected, unpredictable and rapidly evolving world it would surely be works that demand viewer passivity that would signal modern art’s demise. Shows that require life can only be proof that contemporary art itself is alive.