Interaction, Participation and the User

by: Mary-Margaret Ewens


In art, there in lies an intersection between technology and interactivity. Within that interactive sphere lies another important component of the user experience;  participation and the social media experience. With the dawn of the “Social Age”,  museum goers are taking to social media now more than ever to showcase their highlight reel, especially when it comes to the hottest and most coveted exhibits they visit around the world. This paper will seek to answer the question of the role the user plays in interactive art, and how social media allows users to be a participant and interactive member within the art itself. We will focus on two specific exhibit examples, Yayoi Kusama’s exhibit “Infinity Mirrors”, which was exhibited at the Hirshorn Museum in Washington DC, and “Everything in Existence” by Italian multimedia artists *fuse, which was exhibited at Artechouse in Washington, DC. From there, I will seek to both identify and categorize key traits of a participatory versus interactive exhibit, while understanding the history behind interactive art, its purpose, and its message for the audience, while combing through social media’s presence within the exhibits, and how by its presence, it helps to user to interact further.

“Museums are inherently an interactive multimedia experience. The visitor is in control of the paths along which they navigate through the artifacts, images, sounds and texts and they are under no obligation to follow the linear structure imposed by the curator.”- David Bearman,

“Museum Management and Curatorship”

Why do I go to museums or exhibits? Is it for the immersive experience or just for the Instagram? This was the question that plagued me to write this piece, especially after learning about how important interactive museum exhibits are to understanding and living through the immersive experience of certain exhibits. Historically, people would go to museums to look at the priceless works of art, to discuss them, argue about the point of them, or why artists used certain shapes, colors, canvases, and other some anomalies to reveal a certain expression. As our generation has gotten less enthused with the idea of attending a museum just for the sake of seeing old artwork, they now tend to see a bigger reason to visit a museum; for the Instagram. To say you’ve been to the Met is one thing, but to have a picture on the iconic steps, or inside a photo of one of the illustriously built and curated art exhibits, that is another thing.

Go through any hashtags of current art exhibits going on, and you’re bound to be bombarded with hundreds if not thousands of photos of girls and guys, millennials and baby boomers alike, posing for a picture. When I first heard about the ArtTechHouse, my first incentive was to look it up on Instagram. Why did I do this? My initial call to Instagram the new attraction was because I came across a photo of a girl I knew, in front of what looked like some spacey, otherworldly backdrop. Between the backdrop, the light, her outfit, and how many people commented on how cool she looked, it obviously made me, a social media millennial, want to see this place for myself. I took to Instagram and dreamt about how incredibly fascinating the pictures would be, not realizing that this museum, and more specifically this exhibit, was much more than a photo that would be taken within a split second.

The History of Interactive Art

The historical context of how interactivity came about can be dated back as early as the 1920’s when Marcel Duchamp created the Rotary Glass Plates, which allowed the user to rotate the plates to see an optical illusion on the other side. Other examples included Yaacov Agam, an Israeli sculptor of the 1960’s, who created “Vibralite”, a “low relief genetic sculpture to function as dynamic pseudo-2D images. By using small manipulations by guests to vary the image, the artist was able to give interaction of his piece back to the user. Edward Ihnatowicz,a Cybernetic Sculptor of the 70’s, explored the “interaction between his robotic works and the audience, by using sound and movement sensors to react to the behavior of the visitors.” (Interactive Architecture) His works would go on to become one of the first ‘computer controlled interactive robotic works of art.” (Interactive Architecture)

In Ken Feingold’s article on the “History of the Interface in Interactive Art”, he describes how Myron Krueger was responsible for “the development of computer-controlled Interactive Art. He began as early as 1969 to conceive spaces in which actions of visitors set off effects. In co-operation with Dan Sandin, Jerry Erdman and Richard Veneszky he conceived the work Glowflow in 1969. This exhibit used “pressure sensitive sensors on its floor, loudspeakers in the four corners of the room and tubes with colored suspensions on the walls. The visitor who steps on one of the sensors sets off either sound or light effects.” (Ken Feingold)

In following, the technology world was also at the helm of creating a never-seen before interactive design, headed up by a University of Utah professor named Ivan Sutherland, who created the worlds first pair of “Head Mounted Display glasses,” which allowed viewers to wear a pair of glasses, which “contained two small monitors, each of which showed a stereoscopical sight to the eyes. Sensors register the head movements and transmit the information to a computer which then calculates the perspective and gives the viewer the impression to move within the image.” (Ken Feingold)

Following the invention and installations of both Krueger and Sutherland, the art and technology world would be turned on its feet. The future of art and technology would now involve the engagement of the audience and “development of responsive environments” for users. Without these very important creations, interactivity within art might not have existed, nor be as advanced and calculated as it is in today’s current interactive environment.

Participation Versus Interaction

It must also be noted the importance in defining the difference between participation versus interaction within the realm of interactive design. While the viewer can participate in the experience, it is not always categorized as necessarily interacting with the art it self.

Interactive art historian, Ken Feingold uses the example of Australian artist Jeffrey Shaw, who’s exhibit, “Points of View” allowed the viewer to sit on a chair and “move the projected video

image of a stage with Egyptian Hieroglyphs. With a second joystick she or he can steer sound traces.” The user is in complete control of where the picture goes and is described by Shaw as

a “particular audio visual journey made by a spectator who operates the joystick which constitutes a’performance’ of this work.While the person using the stick is considered the performance, those watching on are considered the audience, therefore concluding that the person acting is the performer.

However, the quick change from participant to interactant comes with very subtle changes.

“The term movement does not any longer signify the movement of the performer in space, but the movement of the image caused by the joystick. The projected scene can be changed in its perspective with only very small physical expenditure. Thus, the computer-controlled system inverts the reception situation. Formerly the spectator had to change her or his position to perceive differently; now she or he induces the computer image to change its perspectives. Thus, the movement of the spectator is substituted by the movement of the image.”

The very definition of interaction is “the situation or occurrence in which two or more objects or events act upon one another to produce a new effect,” while participation is the effect resulting from such a situation or occurrence.” (Webster) Exploring these minute differences between definitions is important if not vital to understanding specific artists interactive works. To further delve into these theories in an effort to explain these key differences, I will present two key exhibit examples; Yayoi Kusama’s Infinity Mirrors and ArtTecHouse’s “Everything in Existence.” Through these two key examples, we will be better able to understand both importance of interaction within art, but also the key distinction between participating and interacting with the works themselves.

Infinity Mirrors by Yayoi Kusama

In February of 2017, the Hirshorn presented what would be come one of its most well known and  highly trafficked exhibits thus far; Infinity Mirrors by Yayoi Kusama. Kusama, who was already a household name in the world of art, had done collaborations with Louis Vuitton, using her famous dot technique that was incorporated in many if not all of her works. In one room, rainbow colored dots were splattered all over the walls, furniture, and floors, giving the room a dizzying, colorful effect. The other was a room filled with mirrors, where the viewer could see oneself from any angle no matter where they were in the room.

The idea was that both the elaborate creation featuring the endless dots and endless versions of oneself reflected in the mirror, was born out Kusama’s idea that she wanted to represent her version of what infinity looked like.

“At the Hirshhorn Museum, visitors will experience Kusama’s version of infinity in six mirrored installation rooms illuminated by LED lights — infinity rooms that expand a viewer’s sense of time and space and suggest a cosmic hyperreality. Kusama has said she’s interested in the concept of “self-obliteration,” seeing her kaleidoscopic installations as connecting her viewers so completely to their surrounding environment that their sense of self is lost.”

While Kusama’s art differed from that of the emersion of true multimedia interaction, her art gave her viewers the ability to be both viewers and performers within her art, thus the very definition of interaction. Visitors were encouraged to not only take part in the experience of taking in the work from afar, but to also be immersed within the art as well, by taking photos sitting on the dot-covered ground or of themselves in the mirrors. It was Kusama’s idea that by making her art interactive, she was making the people viewing and visiting her art, performers. She wanted to fully immerse her viewers in an experience that could only be replicated in real life. Furthermore, to probe into the idea of performers within her art, by taking photos and posing, and posting to social media, Kusama’s “performers” were being able to take in the experience of her art, but also the point of her art; the interactivity of it.

Her artwork allowed for people to be present within the here and now, and while the photos in the coveted exhibit were ones that thousands of people would use and post to Instagram for social media “clout”, the purpose of her art only came through once the viewer themselves was able to fully take part in it. So to say her exhibit was primarily successful for her name and the exhibits ability to be “instagrammable”, would be an incorrect assumption. It was successful because it allowed the viewers to be fully integrated into the exhibit while experiencing the full nature of infinity from Kusama’s point of view, and taking home with them an indescribable untransferable experience that could not be translated over social media.

Within the dotted room, aside from the collective experience the user feels when they walk in, the purpose of the exhibit isn’t to take pictures. Kusama had the idea that like most people in the word, she was “one of the dots among the millions of dots in the universe,” and decided to use them to evoke individual disintegration and cosmic unity. “Polka dots,” she has said, “are a way to infinity.” (The Atlantic) By issuing this notion, the audience sees themselves within the art, a part of the art, not just by joining in and taking photos, but connecting with it as well from the sense that we are all just small dots in a larger universe that can go on for infinity. This premise is what makes the exhibit so intuitive and interactive, is that it engages the audience to think about themselves in the bigger sense of the world. Without the user, the exhibit would just be a room full of dots.

As we see, Kusama uses interaction in a different way than *fuse does with their exhibit in Artechouse. Kusama’s, while interactive provides a different although similar sense to the connection between the user and the interactivity.

“Everything in Existence” by *fuse

When my friends and I first arrived to the ArtTechHouse, it was a tiny structure from the outside. No queues, no waitlist, nothing. We were asked to put on a pair of blue booties as to not scuff the floor of the installation and were lead downstairs to a brief introduction by one of the museum heads who explained the point of the exhibit to us. “Everything in Existence”, was the title of the exhibit. Created by Italian artists fuse*, the exhibit was created to open up users to “new perspectives from which to observe and consider our reality.”

“Everything in Existence traces a line that highlights the evolution of the studio’s practice, presenting four multimedia installations that invite audiences to experience different perceptions of reality and new perspectives that are designed to remind us that we are all part of something bigger. The works are generated by a software that processes data in real time, whether that data is derived from interaction with the viewer (“Snowfall”), from social networks (“Amygdala”), from sound (“Clepsydra”) or from the software itself (“Multiverse”). Using this generative technique, fuse* creates “living” art that constantly renews itself and changes before one’s eyes, rewarding prolonged viewing and repeat visits from the spectator.” The largest part of the exhibit, combined both the Snowfall and Clepsydra is displayed on a large screen on three different sides of the room. Using digital and multimedia effects, the artwork uses sounds and imagery to repeat patterns similar to waves, spirals, and rainfall. Users can then watch the animation either standing up, or sitting on the benches or pillows provided.

Another room provides a space which mirrors the users actions, capturing them in digital manner using millions of tiny light probes to gather intel on the shape of the person, then repeating it back onto the frame to show the user. In yet another space, the technologies used locate algorithms within the social media sphere, specifically categorizing Twitter hashtags into colors depending on the “mood” of the hashtag using key words. The colors are then thrown together on various screens that illuminates each tweet for a brief second in time, in coordination with its mood color, thus creating the art piece.

Without the interaction between the art and the users, a museum like ArtTechHouse would fail to exist. While its job is to create intellectually stimulating works that not only grab the user, but engage, encourage, and challenge the users to think outside of the realm of their everyday notions, its job is also to create an aesthetically pleasing situation for the user. People wouldn’t just come to a museum just to go. There must be something in it for them. That is where user engagement, technology, and social media come into play.

“I think as humans, we appreciate art and we connect to it when we can be a part of it, when we can interact with it,” Tati, partner and managing director of Artechouse said. The director also explained in an article how while “interacting with the installations over the internet doesn’t do it justice, they’re happy visitors are sharing their positive experiences,” in other words through social media. Much of the hype around Artechouse originally came about with their very first exhibition XYZT: Abstract Landscapes, which originally debuted in the summer of 2017. Then, just a small gallery in Miami, Artechouse was met with international attention. After its opening in DC in 2017, it has seen over 100,000 visitors in less than a year, much in part due to its overwhelming marketing abilities on social media. Of the nearly 30,000 plus Instagram tags the gallery gets, nearly all of them involve pictures of the user within the exhibit, as opposed to the exhibit itself. But that is in a sense, the point of interaction within exhibits, no?

“The magic is what the person experiences interacting with the art,” said Lorne Covington, Noirflux’s, the company behind the XYZT exhibits, creative director and principal. “Most art is an object or a thing. We work with something that is intangible — that direct experience.”

Whether or not the user is visiting the space for social media usage is not a point of contention. The very idea that the user is interacting, be that taking a photo with the exhibit or of the exhibit, shows that the art is doing its job. However, much like the Kusama experience, the point of the audiences visit is to both experience the exhibit in real time, and moreover to understand the vast capabilities of multimedia art and allows for the audience to picture themselves in a space larger than their own selves.


As we have traced the history of interactivity, melding together technology and art, to how its influence is ever-present in the current interactive art models, the importance of user participation and interaction is highly important to the understanding of each exhibit. We learned that historically, interactive art began in the early 1920’s with people using early technology such as bikes and the invention of the worlds first gaming glasses. As technology progressed, more and more artists began incorporating the use of technology into their work with such examples as sensors within the exhibits themselves, where the audience would press on a sensor in order to engage the users with the very idea and point of the work itself. Further down the line, with the invention of data, and multimedia, artists such as *fuse, began incorporating large scale media projections, encompassing multiple forms of technology and art, to create a futuristic experience for the audience members. Others like Kusama took a different approach and used technology at a minimum, such as the use of lights within her work of “Infinity Mirrors.” However, in looking at both “Everything in Existence” an “Infinity Mirrors”, we can see similarities in their approach to how to engage their audience and utilize participation in order to further the point of their work.

While both exhibits were phenomenally popular and amassed a large social media following of Instagram heavy audience members, this never impacted the very premise under which the artists created their work. For Kusama it was getting the audience to be a part of the art, if but for a brief minute. It taught that we are all tiny beings in a large world, and to think of ourselves as just one person in an infinity of multiples. Infinity Mirrors allowed the viewers to be the performers within her work, be that existing in it themselves or taking pictures and sharing it on social media. All examples of interaction played into the very reason Kusama created the work in the first place.

Within “Everything in Existence”, in the main room, the very idea is much like Kusama’s; to picture oneself as but a small imprint on the world in its existence as a whole. It allows the audience to sit and contemplate just how vast the space of time really is, while immersing themselves in the multimedia experience. The very purpose of their exhibit is to engage their users to a point where they not only share their experience on social media, but moreover so that they take in the full feeling of what it is like to be both a performer and interacting within an immersive experience.

Art and the interactive experience are more now than ever becoming the future of art. For newer artists looking to break into the sphere of art and media interfaced, their new challenge is not how to engage people, but to make the audience feel the purpose of the piece itself. “It is about the experience the artist delivers to the public – whether it is provocative, whether it changes how the viewer thinks, feels and views the world,” graphic software developer Rama Hoetzlein said.

While social media and particpation can both prove to be important in the overall growth and expansion of interactive design, it is up to the artists themselves to make sure that the experience people take away is immersive, particpatory, and allows them to interact with the overall message of the work. As Hans Ulrich Obrist, co-director of the Serpentine Gallery, said: “I don’t think we can predict nor prescribe the future of art. It is the famous ‘etonnez-moi’ [astonish me] of Diaghilev and Cocteau’- great art always surprises us, takes us where we expect it least.”


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