Interactive is defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as “reciprocally active; acting upon or influencing each other.”1 Although such interactivity may result in the reciprocal engagement or interaction of any two objects or beings, it was only with the addition of new technologies that the term came to be associated with primarily human–machine relations. A second definition listed by the OED presents interactive as “pertaining to or being a computer or other electronic device that allows a two-way flow of information between it and a user, responding immediately to the latter’s input.”2 A new genre of interaction has developed through participation with increasingly subjective and semiautonomous technological devices.

Television broadcasting exemplifies this mode of interactivity, or at least the beginning of its simulation. Signing off of the air for the night, the anchor says to his audience, “We’ll see you tomorrow.” This phrase implies a relationship with the viewer, a connection between the medium of the television and the person watching at home. In this way, it is bridging two realms: that of reality with that of televised media. In inducting the viewer into this on-screen world, “interactivity” acts as a “kind of ‘suture’ between ourselves and our machines.”3 Representation comes to stand for a new reality into which the viewer becomes absorbed. Guy Debord, writing for a society newly saturated with televised and cinematic media, labeled this emerging relationship as the spectacle that results from such representation. “Where the real world changes into simple images, the simple images become real beings and effective motivations of hypnotic behavior.”4 In more modern technologies, interactivity has evolved to consist not only of a reaching between spaces, but an immersion and affective engagement within another world or system entirely.

Interactions with these technologies allow for active user control. In her book Virtualities: Television, Media Art, and Cyberculture, Margaret Morse identifies interactivity as a “means of allowing the consumer/viewer to select or change the image with the help of an input device—telephone, keyboard, remote control, joystick, mouse, touch-screen, brain wave reader, et cetera.”5 It is the ability of the user to participate in the creation or modification of a medium. Marshall McLuhan tracks the emergence of this new interaction through his explanation of ‘hot’ and ‘cool’ media. While cool media encourage the interaction of their users, “hot media do not leave so much to be filled in or completed by the audience. Hot media are, therefore, low in participation, and cool media are high in participation or completion by the audience.”6 Hot and cool media do not necessarily have to be mechanistic, but among cool media is the telephone, one apparatus in a series of innovations that have pushed our society towards what McLuhan perceives of as a new age. “In terms of the reversal of procedures and values in the electric age, the past mechanical time was hot, and we of the TV age are cool.”7 He describes an increased level of collaboration, or interaction, with electric media. For McLuhan, interactive media are participatory.

Increased interaction with these media introduces a new societal space, that of the virtual. A community of interactivity is one that influences individual space and time.8 Morse states that technologies “employ various forms of engagement to construct a virtual relationship between subjects in a here-and-now… The interactive user is an I or a player in discursive space and time.”9

This is perhaps best demonstrated through Web technology. The Internet immerses its users in an environment of abstracted space in which interactions are enacted through the click of a button. “Whether we call the noplace in which exchanges on electronic networks occur or the scene of an immersive computer graphic ‘world’ a virtual environment, artificial reality, or cyberspace, the gathering of places and sites of experience in electronic culture are increasingly situated in what amounts to nonspace and in which humans not only interact with human agents but also with the semiautonomous agency of the machines.”10 The growing popularity of computer and video games, which invite viewers to interact with an entire virtual world through a character that they themselves create, is the most recent reflection of this trend.

Interactions in virtual space transcend traditional physical boundaries, and this is why the way that people interact online is often through revolutionized or liberated modes of expression. Chatrooms, e-zines, wiki pages, and networking sites such as Facebook and MySpace have produced arenas for new behavior and self-expression. Lelia Green views these types of engagement, from web collaboration to cybersex, as indicative of an entirely new cultural regulation, a new set of rules that redefine the type and scale of acceptable interaction.11 As interactive media become more complex and engaging, the way in which users interact with each other evolves along with their interactions with the medium itself.

Still, real societal potential is recognized in these ‘noplace’ interactions. It is believed by some that interaction within the virtual might be translated to interaction within reality, and thus computer-mediated relations are presented as “democracy’s salvation.”12 “Indeed,” Green notes, “the Internet offers the opportunity for creative and experiential psychological interconnection with others unrivalled by traditional mass media in either the local or global context.”13 Holmes classifies this as a “community of interactivity”14 that allows for interconnection and collaboration on the most global scale possible.15 While the regulations of the real public sphere once molded interactions of the virtual, the new modes of engagement popularized in virtual media have begun to be seen as models for reality.

Jodi Dean, however, sees only a fantasy [link] of social unity in these interactions.16 After all, “virtual reality in itself is a rather miserable idea: that of imitating reality, of reproducing its experience in an artificial medium.”17 The World Wide Web is only a “deluge of screens and spectacles”18 that undermines the opportunity for democratic reality, a modern incarnation of the society described by Debord. Although Internet technology might be a source of democratic potential, Dean argues that it is “a mistaken notion that the Web is a public sphere.” 19 Instead, the proliferation of interactivity only leads to an obsession with this availability of computer-mediated, global information. “Enthralled by transparency” itself, no inspiring action is taken beyond the virtual level.20

Nevertheless, the last two decades of art production have capitalized on this potential for interactivity promoted through virtual interface. “In observing contemporary artistic practices, we ought to talk of ‘formations’ rather that ‘forms’. Unlike an object that is closed in on itself by the intervention of a style and a signature, present-day art shows that form only exists in the encounter and in the dynamic relationship enjoyed by an artistic proposition with other formations, artistic or otherwise.”21 If internet interactivity represents an extension of the social arena and the potential for further democratization, then interactive art has become a means for creating and furthering both local and global relations. Termed ‘relational aesthetics’ by the French art critic Nicolas Bourriaud and ‘dialogical art’ by Grant Kester in his book Conversation Pieces: Community and Communication in Modern Art, these projects “unfold through a process of performative interaction.”22

Rikrit Tiravanija’s Untitled 1992 (Free) exemplifies the increasing interactivity of art exhibitions through its recreation of the gallery as a new site of interaction. In his work, which consisted of the makings for a provisional kitchen23, Tiravanija forced participation upon the viewer by inviting visitors to cook and eat Thai noodles. Here, the medium of the artwork itself became the interactions taking place, first of the visitor with the Thai noodles, and later, the socialization with others that resulted from the unexpected sharing of this space. Tiravanija’s work, and the work of other artists who invite similar interactions with their artwork (Felix Gonzalez-Torres, Sophie Calle, Pierre Hyughe), represent a shift in participation and viewer engagement. In current artistic production, “meaning and sense are the outcome of an interaction between artist and beholder, and not an authoritarian fact. In modern art [the beholder must] make an effort to produce sense out of objects that are even lighter, ever more impalpable and even more volatile. Where the decorum of the picture used to offer a frame and a format, we must now often be content with bits and pieces. Feeling nothing means not making enough effort.”24 In Bourriaud’s opinion, viewer interaction has become the medium of the contemporary work of art.

These sites for interactive art and the communities they create are alternatively called platforms or stations, terms that evoke the electronic network and computer technology.25 “Though the means applied to this end are usually far funkier and more face-to-face than any chat room on the web,” the sociability of artwork remains closely linked to internet rhetoric.26

Increasingly interactive media allow for more affective engagement with both technology and, in the case of the Internet, fellow users. While the efficacy and sincerity of such relationships continues to be debated, Bourriaud presents personal interactions as the solution to Debord’s Society of the Spectacle, which is “the opposite of dialogue.”27 The spectacle escapes the activity, reconsideration, and correction of men,28 but Bourriaud argues that it can be “analyzed and fought through the production of new types of relationships between people.”29 The interactivity presented by and mediated through new technologies—television, the World Wide Web, computer and video games—do not precisely mirror face-to-face relationships. Yet while the practices of one arena of interaction do not always translate directly to another, there is potential, as in all reciprocal relationships, for revision and transformation through active engagement.

Caitlin Rubin


1. Oxford English Dictionary Online, s.v. “interactive,” (accessed 26 January 2008).

2. —.

3. Margaret Morse, Television, Media Art, and Cyberculture (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1998), 16.

4. Guy Debord, “Separation Perfected,” from The Society of the Spectacle (Detroit” Black & Red, 1983), 18.

5. Morse, 22.

6. Marshall McLuhan, Understanding Media (Cambridge, MA: MIT University Press, 1994), 23.

7. —. , 27.

8. David Holmes quoted in Lelia Green, Communication, Technology and Society (London, Sage Publications Ltd., 2001), 161.

9. Morse, 4.

10. —., 17.

11. Green, 181–2.

12. Jodi Dean, Publicity’s Secret: How Technoculture Capitalizes on Democracy (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2002), 2.

13. Green, 164.

14. Holmes in Green, 160.

15. —., 164.

16. Dean, 9.

17. Slavoj Zizek, Organs without Bodies: On Deleuze and Consequences (New York: Routledge, 2004), 3.

18. Dean, 3.

19. —., 166.

20. —., 173.

21. Nicolas Bourriaud, Relational Aesthetics (1998), trans. Simon Pleasance and Fronza Woods (Les presses du reel, 2002), 21.

22. Grant H. Kester, Conversation Pieces: Community and Communication in Modern Art (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2004), 10.

23. Art Cal, “Gordon Matta-Clark, Rikrit Tiravanija: David Zwirner Gallery.”

24. Bourriaud, 80.

25. Hal Foster, Rosalind Krauss, Yve-Alain Bois, and Benjamin H.D. Buchloch, Art Since 1900: Modernism, Anti-Modernism, Postmodernism (New York: Thames & Hudson, 2004), 667.

26. —., 667.

27. Debord, 18.

28 —., 18.

29 Bourriaud, 85.


Art Cal. “Gordon Matta-Clark, Rikrit Tiravanija: David Zwirner Gallery.”

Bourriaud, Nicolas. Relational Aesthetics. 1998. Trans. Simon Pleasance and Fronza Woods. Les presses du reel, 2002.

Dean, Jodi. Publicity’s Secret: How Technoculture Capitalizes on Democracy. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2002.

Debord, Guy. “Separation Perfected.” In The Society of the Spectacle. Detroit: Black & Red, 1983.

Foster, Hal, Rosalind Krauss, Yve-Alain Bois, and Benjamin H.D. Buchloch. Art Since 1900: Modernism, Anti-Modernism, Postmodernism. New York: Thames & Hudson, 2004.

Green, Lelia. Communication, Technology and Society. London: Sage Publications Ltd., 2001.

Kester, Grant H. Conversation Pieces: Community and Communication in Modern Art. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2004.

McLuhan, Marshall. Understanding Media. Cambridge, MA: MIT University Press, 1994.

Morse, Margaret. Television, Media Art, and Cyberculture. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1998.

Oxford English Dictionary Online. s.v. “interactive.” (accessed 26 January 2008).

Tiravanija, Rikrit. Untitled 1992 (Free). 1992. New York, NY.

Zizek, Slavoj. Organs without Bodies: On Deleuze and Consequences. New York: Routledge, 2004.