by Annet Dekker

Interactivity and immersion are common words in new technology in general and multimedia in particular. It is featured daily in a growing number of pubic discourses, from entertainment and education to marketing and also since the mid 1990s in art. The term interactivity first surfaced around 1960 in the United States in reference to the computer or to be precise to the fact that scientists had managed to interrupt the computer's operations. They called the interruption an interactivity and decided to focus on the partnership of man and machine in further development of the computer.

Since then interactivity got directly associated with computer systems. Interactive art as we now has not changed its relation to computers. But the background of Interactive Art harks back to participational art where the spectator is taking part in a given project. This could be Happenings (1950s) or the reactive Kinetic Art (1950s) where the public was encouraged to take part in the realization of the artistic project. Partaking was supposed to stimulate the spectators creativity and hence with inspire new ideas. The ideals of the artists were high they wanted to change both the art world and the world at large. But at the time many of these undertakings failed. Artists soon found out that the public was not keen on being engaged and in making the project alive. The better controlled video installations of the 1970s became an acceptable substitute.

The video installations, especially the closed-circuit installations were based on principals that were close to interactive art. The installations consisted of video camera’s, monitors or projections and were based on relations in which the public didn’t need to actively partake. The media used created the work and from the audience a mere perceptive participation was expected. The interest in these controlled environments in which the actions of the public activate the work increased with the development in technology. Due to cheaper and smaller equipment the installations could become less ‘obvious’ and more adventurous. Not all of the works were interactive in itself, most of the installations were very much controlled, but the creative process was interactive.

The public stirs the computer which in turn translates the movements in images, sounds or texts, for the public to play/interact with. The spectator becomes a user searching for the (prescribed) paths. Hoping to encounter the new and unexpected while losing oneself in a total immersion.

The focus in many instalaltions shifted from a perception of time and place to disorientation and the body of the visitor in this new space. Mirros, lights, smoke or darkened spaces were used to influence the public both physically and mentally. The pshychological aspect became more and more important. Surrounded by a three-dimensional space of the work, projects the users body mentally into another, spatial and temporal dimension he experiences in real time. This use of space and architecture has become an important characteristic of most interactive and installation art. This connects interactive and installation art to the House and Techno scene. With a tradition that had its origins already in Rock and Disco people were fast to pick up the experimentes with new technologies and large multi media environments. People were keen to step away from the stage and by using screens, objects and lights they transformed the space, thereby creating their own immersive world.

”Designer drugs, drum machines, synthesisers, samplers, speakers, lights, lasers, motorways, mobile phones – dance culture has always taken the very latest technology has to offer and twisted it to its own hedonistic ends. But it has also been the forefront of social change. Clubs have always been places hidden from the everyday world, where we can experiment with new identities and lifestyles, where people forced out on to the margins could find space to escape, dance and feel free. Where they could transcend” (Sheryl Garrett, 1999 p.3-4).

These kind of remarks show similar intentions as those of the earlier installation artists. Even though the social urgency has almost dissapeared the attention for space, architecture and the position of the public / body is still very much alive.

Today's increasing interest in 'immersive art' is believed to be a counter action in response to the digitalisation of our society and the increased use of technology in art, which generates work that is not recognised as art forms that can withstand the criteria of 'high art'. Yet elaborate artwork such as the immersive digital worlds Ima Traveller and Tuboid by Erwin Driessens and Maria Verstappen, live performances by Scanner & Tez, and the interactive installation Cardio-morphologies by George (Phoonkin) Khut show that an immediate, bodily, sensorial aesthetic experience can be enforced by means of digital technology. These and other installations show that technology is used as a tool or an invisible interface but is not the main focus of the work.

During 5 days off the Netherlands Media Art Institute, Melkweg and Paradiso will present installations and performances in which the experience of space and its effect on the senses will come afore. The projects consists of interactive installations, single channel works, spacious objects and live sound an image performances. Installations as Exploding Plastic inevitable give a context to this rich and fast developping field.