installation (1)

This is the noun for install, derived from the Latin installare, from in + stallum (stal-, stall-: sitting-place, standing-place). To install something is to put it in place, and the word also implies the situating of the object within a preexisting framework that contains the place to be filled. One may think of putting a horse in its stall as a straightforward example.

An examination of the various uses of the verb “install” through history reveals a progressive democratization of the agency that it implies. According to the OED, the word was initially used to mean “to invest with an office or dignity by seating in a stall or official seat,” its use first chronicled in 1548. This term was later extended to refer to any placement into position of a person or body. It was not until the late nineteenth century that the verb was applied to the placement of an apparatus for service or use. This sense came into currency during the industrial age, and the proliferation of mechanized labor allowed “installation” to be performed in specialized arenas by multitudes of working-class people, not just leaders or governing authorities.

A century later, as the information age drastically changed how information was disseminated, installation became a commonplace activity for anyone with a personal computer. The insertion of a new set of code into the framework of a computer’s operating system is now a mundane task. But the degree of agency that installation confers is not as clear-cut as it may seem. While the task of augmenting and updating a computer’s capabilities is relegated to the user in a manner foreign to less “interactive” media like television, by installing a prepared program off of a CD or diskette one is simply serving as a vehicle for the system‘s development. The human performing the installation does little more than insert a disk and click through some prompts, acting as McLuhan’s “servomechanism,” the sex organs of the evolving machine (McLuhan 56). Although the domain of installation was democratized by the age of software, the act carries less decisive freedom than it ever did for kings or even plumbers.

When downloads from the Internet became a common method of obtaining and updating software, installation became little more than a banal on-screen ritual. The storage of new data and human verification remained, but the physical copies of the program–the media themselves–vanished in favor of an online master edition that can be infinitely duplicated and transmitted on request. To abuse some Platonic thinking, this reconstitutes the data in something closer to a singular, ideal form and then allows for the propagation of a multitude of exact, scattered copies. With every download, the client computer is “perfected,” made more similar to the idealized, constantly up-to-date realm of the distant yet nearly immediate Internet. Thus the manifest act of installation, with all the excitement and fear of malfunction it entailed, had a brief period in the spotlight before being outdated by a restless but physically effortless process of mimesis.

The recent trend toward networked “auto-updating” software that downloads and installs itself has taken a large step toward eliminating the need for human-mediated installation. Additionally, many resources are now being authored to function completely off of a central server, accessed through a web browser or similar client. This state of online engagement is the next step in a homogenization of personal computers, making the effort to remain up-to-date a moot point since the computer becomes a standard access point to a world of information contained not in the user’s hands but in the omnipresent realm of the Internet. This causes each copy of software to take on the qualities of the simulacrum as described by Deleuze: “There is no longer any privileged point of view except that of the object common to all points of view” (Deleuze 262). Eliminating the need for discrete copies stemming from a central source, instantaneous online distribution provides the same thing, in its entirety, with “no possible hierarchy,” to every user.

Remarkably little “new media” theory has focused on the act of software installation as a technical or social practice, leaving it in the background as an unobserved prerequisite to the enjoyment of whatever technological novelties are thought to merit exploration. However, the practice merits some attention. In The Art of Memory, Yates relies heavily on Simonides’s system of mapping objects onto a succession of spatiotemporal “loci,” which parallels the system of introducing and filing new data into a computer’s information architecture (Yates 2). Were McLuhan writing now, he would likely try to untangle the systems of dissemination involved in the actual media of installation (CDs, DVDs, Internet downloads) as well as the forms of mediation introduced by the software they contain. As it stands, far more attention has been devoted to “installation” as an entity all its own: the burgeoning if uncertain field of installation art.

“Installation” as nomenclature for a specific form of art came into use fairly recently; its first use as documented by the OED was in 1969. It was coined in this context in reference to a form of art that had arguably existed since prehistory but was not regarded as a discrete category until the mid-twentieth century. Allan Kaprow used the term “Environment” in 1958 (Kaprow 6) to describe his transformed indoor spaces; this later joined such terms as “project art” and “temporary art.”

Nobody has managed to come up with a definition of installation art that satisfies everybody, perhaps because it is more representative of a sea change in the practice of art appreciation than of any decisive breakthrough in a specific medium. Essentially, installation/environmental art takes into account the viewer’s entire sensory experience, rather than floating framed points of focus on a “neutral” wall or displaying isolated objects (literally) on a pedestal. This leaves space and time as its only dimensional constants, and it promises to engender or at least embrace a comprehensively critical mode of experience. This implies dissolution of the line between art and life; Kaprow noted that “if we bypass ‘art’ and take nature itself as a model or point of departure, we may be able to devise a different kind of art… out of the sensory stuff of ordinary life” (Kaprow 12).

The conscious act of artistically addressing all the senses with regard to the viewer’s experience in totality made a resounding debut in 1849 when Richard Wagner conceived of a Gesamtkunstwerk, or an operatic work for the stage that drew inspiration from ancient Greek theater in its inclusion of all the major art forms: painting, writing, music, etc. (Britannica) In devising operatic works to commandeer the audience’s senses, Wagner left nothing unobserved: architecture, ambiance, and even the audience itself were considered and manipulated in order to achieve a state of total artistic immersion.

In “Art and Objecthood,” Michael Fried derisively labels art that acknowledges the viewer as “theatrical” (Fried 45). There is a strong parallel between installation and theater: both play to a viewer who is expected to be at once immersed in the sensory/narrative experience that surrounds him and maintain a degree of self-identity as a viewer. The traditional theatergoer does not forget that he has come in from outside to sit and take in a created experience; a trademark of installation art has been the curious and eager viewer, still aware that he is in an exhibition setting and tentatively exploring the novel universe of the installation.

The artist and critic Ilya Kabakov mentions this essential phenomenon in the introduction to his lectures “On the “Total” Installation:” “[One] is simultaneously both a ‘victim’ and a viewer, who on the one hand surveys and evaluates the installation, and on the other, follows those associations, recollections which arise in him[;] he is overcome by the intense atmosphere of the total illusion” (Kabakov 256). Here installation art bestows an unprecedented importance on the observer’s inclusion in that which he observes. The expectations and social habits that the viewer takes with him into the space of the installation will remain with him as he enters, to be either applied or negated once he has taken in the new environment. What is common to nearly all installation art is a consideration of the experience in toto and the problems it may present, namely the constant conflict between disinterested criticism and sympathetic involvement. Television and video offer immersive experiences, but their unrelenting control over the rhythm of passing time and the arrangement of images precludes an intimately personal viewing experience (Kabakov 257). Ultimately, the only things a viewer can be assured of when experiencing the work are his own thoughts and preconceptions and the basic rules of space and time. All else has become a medium in the artist’s hands.

The central importance of the subjective point of view when experiencing installation art, like the evolved stages of software distribution, points toward a disregard for traditional Platonic image theory. In effect, the entire installation adopts the character of the simulacrum or flawed statue: it neglects any ideal form in favor of optimizing its direct appearance to the observer. Installation art operates fully within the realm of sensory perception, in a sense “installing” the viewer into an artificial system with an appeal to his subjective perception as its ultimate goal.

Stefan Kamph


Deleuze, Gilles. The Logic of Sense. New York: Columbia University Press, 1990.

Fried, Michael. “Art and Objecthood.” In Art and Objecthood: Essays and Reviews. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998.

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Kabakov, Ilya. On the “Total” Installation. Ostfildern, Germany: Cantz, 1995, 243-260.

Kaprow, Allan. “Notes on the Creation of a Total Art.” In Essays on the Blurring of Art and Life, ed. Jeff Kelley. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1958.

Kimmelman, Michael. “Installation Art Moves In, Moves On.” New York Times 9 August 1998: 1, 32.

McLuhan, Marshall. Understanding Media: the Extensions of Man. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1994.

“opera.” Britannica Student Encyclopedia. 2006. Encyclopedia Britannica Online. 15 Feb. 2006 .

Reiss, Julie H. From Margin to Center: The Spaces of Installation Art. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1999.

Rosenthal, Mark. Understanding Installation Art: From Duchamp to Holzer. Munich: Prestel Verlag, 2003.

Yates, Frances. The Art of Memory. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1966.