Roy Ascott writes in Gesantdantenwerk “One can no longer be at the window, looking in on a scene composed by another, one is instead invited to enter the doorway into a world where interaction is all.” The relationship between the viewer and the art object has always caused debate, which can be traced back to religious art and its place within the church, as art pieces were seen as a window to the vision of God and having holy elements, viewers were often prohibited from interacting with them by touching or closely inspect them.
The artwork was meant to produce a humbling effect on the audience from afar, which aimed to place them in awe of some divinity. These notions were shared by all monotheistic religions, be it Judaism, Christianity or even Islam where the decorated shrines of “Imams” were protected by gold cages and the pilgrims were refrained from touching the artwork.
Seeing seems to be the only interaction deemed suitable for religious artworks, and this was further implemented by the restrictions of ownership and private property laws which are still in place today. As Erkki Huhtamo writes: “touching with one’s eyes only, was a manifestation of an ideological ‘mechanism’ where the formation of aesthetic experience was associated with ‘stepping back’ – maintaining physical distance from the artwork.” As he rightly points out the condition of art as valuable commodity, and the romantic notions of artist as a mad genius contributed to the limitations being imposed on interactivity with an artwork.
However, with the emergence of the avant-garde and a fresh take on presentation of art pieces by artists like Duchamp and the Surrealists in the 20th century, the path toward interactivity and the idea of “touch” becoming essential to works of contemporary artists was laid. Erkki Huhtamo continues in his essay concerning new media and idea of “Touch”: “The idea of interactive art is intimately linked with touching. As it is usually understood, an interactive artwork is something that needs to be actuated by a ‘users’.” He then proceeds to explain that the notion of “touch” is nor restricted to the physical act carried out by hands or other parts of the body, and can include vision and motion senses and even sound.
He goes on to say: “In a technological culture, forms of touch have been instrumentalized into coded relationships between humans and machines.” Interactivity of new media artists, especially light artists like UVA consists of interaction between man and technology, be they machines, computers or electric circuits. As technology and science based artwork became part of the art scene, interactivity became much more mutual on both the artist and the viewer, and in some cases the artist becomes unimportant as the interaction takes place between the viewer and the artwork itself.
By showcasing the Array piece in Japan, the UVA were tapping into a long ancient tradition of a country very familiar with the concept of Interactivity and Immersion. Japanese culture has a long artistic history and they view their “bijutsu” (Meaning ‘Visual Fine Arts’ a term introduced in late nineteenth century as Japan opened relationship doors and trading with the west) as having roots in traditional concepts of immersing in art which they value highly. Art played an integral role in Japanese life; and instead of being something revered as special, it was used in everyday life and surrounding with ordinary use. The tradition of painting pictures goes back throughout Japanese history, however it was seen as harmonizing the living and religious environment by hiring artists to paint their work on screens and sliding doors. Artwork could be found on most household items like tableware, chests and trunks. Elegant designs and complicated embroidery could be found on clothes and accessories.
Oliver Grau writes: “Immersion is produced works of art and image apparatus converge, or when the message and the medium form an almost inseparable unit, so that the medium becomes invisible.” And certainly with artworks like Array and Volume, the audience lose themselves in the experience, unaware of the medium or the artwork. Most contemporary audience fail to recognise such work as art and concentrate on working out a way to interact with the piece in their own individual way.
They are immersed in an environment accompanied by changing lights and sounds which they control by their movement and distance. It can be described as another alternative existence. Oliver Grau writes: “The most ambitious project intends to appeal not only to the eyes but to all other senses so that the impression arises of being completely in an artificial world,” and whereas Grau is referring to virtual reality, one can pursue the same notion in explaining the light installations of UVA with a difference which is: whereas in virtual reality one is aware of being immersed in an artificial world, in connection with light installations in question one is faced with real environments which can produce a sublime and lasting effect when immersion takes place.