Staying Interactive

Posted on Sunday, October 30, 2011, under , , ,

Ever since Duchamp threw the bottle rack and the urinal in our faces ready-made objects never looked the same again – for better or for worse. He was most likely thinking along the lines of ‘If it’s signed and you can’t piss in it, it’s got to be art’1, and that’s all very well. Still, groundbreaking ideas like Duchamp’s work only so far. It doesn’t mean that if you or I, in Duchamp’s words, ‘took an ordinary article of life, placed it so that its useful significance disappeared under the new title and point of view - created a new thought for that object'2, it would ever make it to a gallery, let alone be considered art. I can’t simply place my old sock or a burnt frying pan on the pavement and put up a flashing green sign in front of it. No, that would not work because the aura of the artist, and even more the aura of an exhibition space remain and will always be the determining factors. Then there are further, no less important questions like: what if the objects we consider art are in fact not? Why, for instance, Tracy Emin’s unmade Bed is art and my unmade bed isn’t? Why is, or why should, my bed be more, or less, displaced than hers? Recently a friend of mine overheard two people in a gallery commenting at great length on the significance of a baby pram which stood on the floor amongst other various objet d’art, and while they were establishing the pram’s fine points of interconnectedness a mother came back with her baby and walked off with the pram, leaving our experts dumbfounded. Duchamp:
People took modern art very seriously when it first reached America because they believed we took ourselves very seriously (…) A great deal of modern art is meant to be amusing. If Americans would simply remember their own sense of humour instead of listening to the critics, modern art will come into its own.3
Duchamp furthered his readymades in the 1920s when he used glass plates to build motorized optical machines as experiments in optical illusion. Rotary Glass Plates (1920), composed of five glass plates painted in black and white, invites the viewer to become an active participant in the art by turning on the optical machine then observing it from one meter away. From that distance the rotating device would create an illusion of continuous concentric circles all on the same plane. Marcel didn’t consider these as ‘art’ per se as he was merely interested in the inconsistencies of the human eye, i.e. the fact that the eye retains an image for a fraction of a second after it has disappeared. Nevertheless, his mechanical contraptions from the 1920s were the true forerunners of what we now label ‘interactive art’. Incidentally, Duchamp’s experiments are apparently considered to stand for ‘pre-historic screensavers’4, anticipating the free-associative, kaleidoscopic moving images on our computer screens some seventy years later – remember After Dark, Ribbons, Flying in Space etc.? Similarly, Duchamp’s ‘Optical Disks’ and ‘Disks Bearing Spirals’ directly led to the first ‘3D’ film ever shot – Anémic Cinéma (1926).  This six-minute film has alternating shots of moving spirals which at times create a 3D effect, and shots of texts mounted on rotating disks which the viewers read from the outside inwards. The text sets are in French and – being French and Duchamp’s – carry a potent erotic subtext, which, again, requires the viewer’s interpretation.

Personally I am all for audience interaction: the viewer becoming part of the view, the visitor becoming part of an exhibit. Recently I visited, and became a willing part of, an installation at Kyoto Art Centre (for those of you who live in Kyoto, this is a converted primary school – well worth a visit if only for its Meiji era corridors and classrooms with creaky floorboards) whereby the audience participated by moving body parts and thus creating weird sounds and noises. My ‘performance’ was (un)luckily captured on camera

A few lines I wrote after the experience: 

after Tadasu Takamine’s ‘Japan Syndrome, The Other Side of the Ball’

I get myself duped, and voluntarily so.
Room One sports a screen
flanked by smaller screens. I stand
on a dotted line, in front a sensor,
limbs twitching undulating
into sound-shrapnel of reckless din –
a New Millennium Theremin.

Room Two across the courtyard
sports a screen, invariably blurry.
On it not a thing moves
till a stranger enters Room One
flapping her limbs about
like a more amiable fool.
Got ourselves duped, and happily so.

1 – R. Appignanesi: Introducing Postmodernism, Icon Books, 1999, p.35.
2 – 'The Richard Mutt Case', The Blind Man, New York, no.2, May 1917, p.5.
3 – Tomkins, Calvin: Duchamp. A Biography. New York: Henry Holt, 1996. p. 226
4 –

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