DEAF04 - Affective Turbulance

V2_: DEAF04 - Affective Turbulance


Openness in Installation Art - Céline Pourveur

22 Oct 2004 , essay

Open systems is a very broad term, and in the context of the upcoming DEAF04 it's useful to examine the different meanings of openness in relation with contemporary installation artworks. To start with a very broad definition, one can say that an open system is at any point modifiable by external elements for the period of time that the system is considered active or operational. Of course, with such a definition almost anything can be defined as an open system. In this article I will discuss different aspects of openness in the context of installation art & interactivity, from different points of view and with several concrete examples.

A first important distinction is to be made between the point of view of the author and of the spectator.
Secondly, in the position of the spectator different kinds of openness can be experienced:
  1. in relation to the function of the spectator/observer, a difference is made between contemplatory & participatory art.
  2. to examine the level of the narrativity in an artwork, we can define different degrees of actualization & potentiality.
Thirdly, looking at the behavior of the system, two kinds of system can be distinguished: dynamic & static systems. In dynamic systems a subdivision is possible between dynamic closed circuit & dynamic interactive (deterministic or indeterministic) systems.

It will become clear that one artwork can at the same time be open and closed, depending on the context in which it is discussed. Openness then, becomes less an intrinsic characteristic of a system, and more a flexible term that can be employed according to different contexts.

Author & spectator

In order to make a first distinction between open and closed artworks, the intention of the artist is useful to examine. An artist can view his work as work-in-progress, as some raw material out of which he could make a definite product somewhere in the future. But it's possible that in the meantime the work-in-progress evolves to the status of finished work, of 'art'. We find examples in literature, e.g. the diaries of Pessoa & Anaïs Nin. Also in installation art: Christo presents his preparatory work (drawings, photographs) in art galleries.
    Less and less artists think in terms of a finished end product (a closed work) and more in terms of a dynamic, 'unstable' project, as work-in-progress. The work-in-progress is an open system, because at any stage (even when it is already exhibited) modifications can be made. The artist develops a concept; showing a physical expression of it in an exhibition is just one manifestation of the idea he is developing. The DEAF04 exhibition project One Word Movie is a good example. The project's concept is that the spectators themselves take the initiative to search images on the Internet, with the help of a keyword. The program transforms the search results into a movie. Although the work is presented at DEAF04 as a weblication, the artists have considered different manifestation forms for it: a multi-user installation work, or a screen installed in public space (here the pictures are downloaded by sending sms messages).
    We see that archives like V2_'s (see: the Capturing Unstable Media research project) are taking this change in the conception of the artwork into account:
We (V2 research team) never use the terms 'artwork' or 'work' in the CMCM (Capturing Unstable Media Conceptual Model) because:
  • the model should be applicable to a wide range of activities in the field of electronic media art and research (...). Activities like research and development trajectories, workshops and seminars, publications, performances and works can thus be applied into the model at an equal level.
  • the term "work" refers too much to a traditional artistic approach, where a cultural product is valued by its artistic merit and considered as a static, unchangeable entity. (Fauconnier & Frommé, 1.2 p.17).
Capturing Unstable Media proposes to explain a project's concept separately from its manifestation forms ('occurrences').  All the different manifestations of an idea (lecture, installation work, performance) are necessary to understand the concept the artist is developing. In this context it is no longer useful to talk about 'the artwork', but about the occurrences or manifestations of an artistic concept. When making art is no longer about making an end product, but about an ongoing creative process, then the public can step in and influence the process. This, of course, depends on the 'openness' of the artist himself. Some manifestation forms are more likely to allow this than others, e.g. a workshop.
    Furthermore, for installation art and especially for interactive installation art, it is often no longer useful to talk about 'the artist', because developing a project has become so complex that the artist has to leave a lot of work to specialists and software developers. Of course there are exceptions, like David Rokeby who develops his own software and who even developed his own tool: softVNS. Still, even artists who develop the concept and software themselves need to depend on other people, like in the case of subsidies.

So, from the point of view of the artist, different interpretations can be given to the word openness: (1) the conception of an artwork as a finished end product or a work-in-progress (in which a distinction should be made between concept and manifestation forms); (2) an artwork made by a solitary artist or developed as teamwork.

Finally, when an installation work is made, we can go to the art gallery, museum or exposition and look at it. What next? This is the start of a process that is very interesting to analyze in the context of defining open systems. Now that we have briefly sketched the position of the artist, we turn to the spectator. The artist has to make choices, early on in the project, about the place/role of the spectator, and the choices that he made say a lot about the kind of artwork he wanted to make and how he perceives the function of art in general. The second part of this article is therefore concerned with the reception of the artwork, not the creation. The degree of openness of an artwork has a lot to do with the position and activity of the spectator. Where the opinion of the artist is of course valuable to understand the artwork, it is in its reception that we can find the ‘true' characteristics of the artwork. The confrontation between spectator and artwork reveals the qualities and originality of the artwork. In what follows, we will examine different meanings of openness in relation to the spectator.

Contemplatory & participatory art

In the mechanistic world view of the 17th-19th Century (Enlightenment), reality was considered to exist independently from the observer and it was left to the spectator to try to figure out the workings of nature. In this period the Newtonian world view (a finite universe governed by uniform laws) reigned, the laws of causality were celebrated and scientists believed that sooner or later they would be able to explain all the mysteries of nature. During the 19th century, scientists believed that there was a reasonable explanation for every natural phenomenon, and that science could, in time, find the rational causes for every mystery. It is not surprising that in such a period detective stories (e.g. Sherlock Holmes) became very popular: some incredible, almost inexplicable mystery can be traced down to its very origins by an intelligent rational (although addicted to cocaine) detective. There is not a trace of inconsistency in the line of argument that the detective exposes at the end of the book (traditionally, with all the suspects assembled in one room). It is like a thread of wool that is carefully unrolled.
    In the 20th century, scientists became a bit less optimistic: Einstein discovered that time & space influenced each other and were thus not the absolute values Newton claimed they were, quantum physics highlighted the contradictions in classical physics and Heisenberg formulated the uncertainty principle.  A shift occurred from certainties to probabilities. A very important theory in quantum physics (Copenhagen Interpretation by Bohr) says that when someone observes a scientific experiment he influences the outcome of the experiment. In this paradigm, reality is actively constructed during measurement/perception, reality can not be separated as an entity outside ourselves that is merely reflected onto our (passive) retina.  Reality then became an open system, but within certain limits: classical mechanics (which says that future events can be predicted from current & past observations) continues to be applied to macroscopic phenomena, whereas quantum physics deals with the fundamentally unpredictable behavior of elementary particles on a microscopic level.

From the 19th to the 20th century, an important shift occurred concerning the perception of reality, in science as in art. There is much reason to believe that both disciplines influenced each other in the beginning of the 20th century and were dealing with the same kind of problems. In his book Einstein, Picasso: Space, Time and the Beauty That Causes Havoc, Arthur Miller tried to find out if there is a link between relativity theory & cubism. He finds it in the person of scientist Poincaré, with whom both Picasso & Einstein were familiar and to whose research program (nature of simultaneity) they both sought answers, each in their own field (Muldoon, 2002). The work of Cézanne could be seen as a prelude to new physics. Cézanne said that "all things, particularly in art, are theory developed and applied in contact with nature." Roy Ascott (1994) remarks that "(this) insight (is) curiously parallel to the one found in the new physics as exemplified in Werner Heisenberg's dictum that it is the experimental apparatus (and including the observer's consciousness) that determined a particle's ‘natural' behavior." (Ascott, 1994). In the essay The Joyce of Science: New physics in Finnegans Wake, the influence of quantum physics in James Joyce's work is carefully pointed down (Duszenko, 1997).

When quantum physics ‘introduced' measurement into their theory, this had large consequences for the status of science itself. This meant that, whereas in classical mechanics, the position of the observer was considered neutral and objective, now the observer influenced the outcome of the scientific experiment. This caused a lot of discussion of course, considering the fact that science would be subjective from then on.  A lot of effort was made to eliminate the subjective part in quantum physics (Prigogine, p.46).
    In art, especially in the visual arts, we see that artists welcomed this subjective element. From the 19th to 20th Century, there is an evolution from meticulously detailed descriptions of the ‘real world' (realism in literature - Flaubert, Zola, and in paintings - Courbet, Manet) to increasingly subjective ‘interpretations' of reality. Impressionism started showing the instable, fluctuating conditions (changing colors and light) of reality. Cézanne already acknowledged the limitations of the single-point perspective that painters had taken for granted for centuries. In Fruit Basket, he experimented with the possibilities of multi-perspective objects (Shlain, 2004). He wanted to present the viewer with different ‘versions' of a single reality. Later on, Picasso would also experiment with multi-perspective faces.  Reality isn't something ‘fixed', the observer is bound to take a point of view, and is thus ‘interfering' with the observation by choosing a standpoint. In literature, the auctorial point of view was increasingly replaced by different personal points of view to show that there was not one story, but there were many interpretations, and so many stories (e.g.. Ulysses by James Joyce, Kapellekesbaan by Louis Paul Boon). The word 'truth' became a problematic term, and more often people talked about interpretations: 'the discarding of a static, syllogic view of order, and a corresponding devolution of intellectual authority to personal decision, choice and social context' (Eco, p.150). In expressionism, surrealism, dadaism, there was no question anymore of objectively showing the world ‘as it is‘ (especially after the Second World War, this reality had become a very ugly one), but how the artist sees it (in all its subjectivity - moods, thoughts, dreams, fantasy).
This shift from contemplatory art to participatory art underlines the shift in thinking about reality from the 19th to the 20th century. As soon as artists started creating art environments (it can be argued that this started with Duchamp), the spectator came into the picture as an active element in the artwork. In accordance with scientific discoveries at the beginning of the 20th century, the concept of participatory art is very valuable, because the spectator and the subjective, instable elements of perception (context, place, light, mood of spectator) play a big role in defining the artwork. In an art environment, the spectator's body becomes part of the artwork's reality and thus actively participates in constructing this reality. Perception in a three-dimensional space inevitably demands choices as to where to direct one's attention: which object to contemplate, which buttons to push, which screen to look at. The artist defines a set of probabilities for a ‘realityKкH@ part of the network of ideas the artist has tried to bring together. Experiencing installation art or electronic art is inevitably making changes to it, even by only being present in it.
    Contemplatory art can therefore be seen as a product of a world view in which reality is considered as a world ‘outside' the viewer's perception, as an objective value that exists independently from the eye. Perception in the paradigm of participatory art means actively constructing reality, being part of it and modifying it at the same time. Contemplatory art sees reality as separated from the observer; he can only take the position of receptor & processor of information. In participatory art, for art to have any relevance, the spectator should be taken into account, like in Peter Weibels installation Public as Exhibit, where visitors observe other spectators on monitors in a room. Without spectators in the room, there's nothing to see. Especially in interactive art, the spectator has to ‘activate' the artwork: in M.U.S.H. (DEAF04 exhibition) spectators must operate a sensor in order to make something happen. Without movement, without someone in the room, there simply is no artwork to look at. So, in this perspective, contemplatory art can be considered a closed system that the spectator can only passively contemplate in order to gain information from it. Participatory art, then, would logically be an open system, in which the spectator has to  acknowledge his own interference before trying to make sense of the artwork.

Narrative explorations

Installation work can be seen as an artist's attempt to implant one system in the middle of the chaos of perceptions and stimuli we confront daily.  It's about 'installing' a heterogeneous network in which the viewer tries to connect several elements and tries to find some narrative line(s) in the middle of the 'organized disorder' the artist has left for him. Eco's metaphor of composers is very useful: 'The author seems to hand them (musical compositions) on to the performer more or less like the components of a construction kit.' (Eco, p.4). But the question is, in what way does the artist give the spectator the freedom to create meaning out of this construction kit?
In the context of literature, Eco distinguishes three categories of open works in his book The Open Work:
(...) (1) "open works", insofar as they are in movement, are characterized by the invitation to make the work together with the author and that (2) on a  wider level (...) there exists works which, though organically completed, are "open" to a continuous generation of internal relations which the addressee must uncover and select in his act of perceiving the totality of incoming stimuli. (3) Every work of art, even though it is produced by following an explicit or implicit poetics of necessity, is effectively open to a virtually unlimited range of possibile readings, each of which causes the work to acquire new vitality in terms of one particular taste, or perspective, or personal performance. (1989, p.21)
Eco's general definition of the open work is based on two kinds of openness: openness based on narrative freedom (1) and openness based on interpretational freedom (2+3). One can question the interpretational freedom on the part of the reader, namely that an artwork is open 'to a virtually unlimited range of possible readings'. Some will argue that every manifestation of art is by definition an open system, that is, a system open to any kind of interpretation. When classical literature works like the Odysseus by Homer or theatre plays by Sophocles are still read and played today and are proclaimed 'universal' works of art, it is because they are seen as open systems. Although these works are praised because they talk about 'universal values', and can thus be applied to any period/situation in time, it's important not to forget that Homer & other Greek authors wrote their works for a very specific public (the authors make a lot of specific references to people and places that only readers of that time & context could understand). Greek 'literature' (which was mostly narrated) carries out a very specific worldview: the Greek believed that the Gods had a very strict destiny in mind for everyone, and lots of theater plays talk about a (foolish) person who tries to avoid his destiny and of course fails in the end (e.g. Oedipus) because it isn't possible to mess with the Gods. It's therefore dangerous to talk about unlimited interpretational freedom and it's useful to talk about 'legitimate' and 'illegitimate' readings: using Shakespeare's Romeo & Juliet to talk about Kosovo and Ruanda is not only illegitimate, but even perverse. Of course, a certain amount of interpretational freedom is always possible in every work of art, art being actually based on a certain degree of ambiguity in the transmission of a message.

Interpretational freedom is about the fact that a (finished) work of art 'triggers' some ideas/memories in the reader. But this kind of freedom doesn't change anything structurally in the work. Eco is mostly interested in the 'real' open work, which is the most radical form of openness that is possible in literature (Eco also talks about music, but in this article I will only refer to literature): narrative freedom. Narrative freedom means that changes are made to the work on a structural level, unlike interpretation, which doesn't affect the composition and ‘integrity' of the work. With narrative freedom, the author has envisioned his work of art in such a way that changes need to be made, in order to appreciate the meaning of the artwork to the fullest. Here, a comparison is possible with contemplatory & participatory art, this time on the level of narrative possibility: the reader also becomes a ‘performer' and the reader experiences his own creative role very consciously. The reader co-authors the text.
    This open work, according to Eco, contains only possibilities not solutions (in analogy with 20th century science). It is an invitation to create a story, not the story itself. The open work offers a relatively indefinite reserve of potential storylines and the viewer must take active part in constructing a story (or several):
There is a tendency to see every execution of the work of art as divorced from his ultimate definition. Every performance explains the composition but does not exhaust it. Every performance makes the work an actuality, but is itself only complementary to all the possible performances of the work. In short, we can say that every performance offers us a complete and satisfying version of the work, but at the same time makes it incomplete for us, because it cannot simultaneously give all the other artistic solutions which the work may admit. (Eco, p15)
One can be struck by the clarity with which Eco defines an open work, still he cannot produce any good examples of it. In music, he refers to Stockhausen, Berio, Pousseur and Boulez. But in literature he only talks about Mallarmé's Livre, an ambitious attempt to encompass ‘the end goal of the world' (Eco, p.12-13). Mallarmé never finished the book and Eco questions if the book would have had any value at all.

For examples of the open work, we should turn to Espen Aarseth. In his book, Cybertext: Perspectives on Ergodic Literature (1997), Aarseth sets out an ontology to define non-linear literature, because he feels that this class has been left out of traditional narratology. First of all, Aarseth refers to the print-based texts I Ching (1122-770 B.C.), Apollinaire's calligrammes (1966), Saporta's Composition no 1 (1962). All three have in common that they cannot be read in a linear way: you can't flip through the pages, from page 1 to the next until the last page of the book is read. The reader has to determine a reading sequence by himself. Every reading, therefore, shall be different. The I Ching, an ensemble of texts linked to 64 symbols (different combinations of six horizontal broken or whole lines), should be read according to a question asked in advance. Apollinaire drew pictures with the words of his calligrammes (poems) so that there is no predetermined sequence in which to read them. The pages of Saporta's novel are like a deck of cards that can be read in any sequence. The same principle is used in Boulez's Third Sonata for Piano. Eco uses the same metaphor of a card game: 'These (sheets of music paper) can be arranged in different sequences like a stack of filing cards.' (Eco, p.2).
    But Aarseth goes further than Eco - this is logical, considering the fact that when Eco wrote his text, hyperfiction and the sophisticated computer games as we know them today didn't exist yet. Aarseth defines four kinds of non-linearity: basic non-linear text (I Ching, Apollinaire's poems, Composition no 1), discontinuous non-linear text (hypertext), determinate and indeterminate cybertext. Cybertext allows the reader to intervene, in a very profound way, in the creation process of the storyline, e.g. Book Unbound by John Cayley:
When you open the book unbound, you will change it. New collocations of phases generated from its hidden given text - a short piece of prose by the work's initiator - will be displayed. After the screen fills, you will be invited to select a phrase from the generated text by clicking on the first and the last words of a string of language which appeals to you. Your selections will be collected on the page of this book named Leaf, where you will be able to copy or edit them as you wish. They will also become a part of the hidden store of potential collocations from which the book will go on to generate new text. That is, your selections will feed back into the process and change it irreversibly. If you continue reading and selecting over many sessions, your preferred collocations may eventually come to dominate the process. The work may then reach a state of chaotic stability, strangely attracted to one particular modulated reading of its original seed text. (Cayley,
MUDs & complex computer games are also examples of cybertexts. When the outcome of the story/game is predetermined by the author, then Aarseth talkes about determinate cybertext, when the development of the game depends on the player, then he talkes about indeterminate  cybertext. (For more info, read Cybertext: Perspectives on Ergodic Literature).
    From the beginning, Aarseth stresses that non-linearity isn't an inherent characteristic of electronic literature. It just happens that digital technology lends itself extremely well for narrative freedom. Aarseth's definition of the non-linear text reminds us of Eco's words:
When we look at the whole, ..., we cannot read it; and when we read it, we cannot see the whole text. Something has come between us and the text, and that is ourselves, trying to read. (...) The realization of its script (...) belongs to the individual user, who is acutely aware of his or her own constructive participation. (Aarseth, 2003).
Based on Eco's definition & Aarseth's examples of the open work, the following scheme can be made:

This line can be seen as a way of measuring the reader's 'activity'. Can he participate actively in the construction of the text? The 'actualization' of a story should be seen as the degree in which invitations to stories are explicitly written out. The less blanks, the less potential for narrative explorations. A high level of actualization can be detected in scientific reports, propaganda, news reports. Here the message has to be clear to every person addressed; ambiguity is considered a 'flaw' in the style. In this case, narrative freedom is not preferred from the part of the viewer, at least in the work itself. (Should someone consider to respond to this article, for example, then he would have to make another article, another 'work'). The most extreme form of actualization would be complete transparency. On the other hand, with maximum potentiality, a maximum of narrative freedom is allowed, it can go as far as the author leaving blank pages for the reader to fill in, to create his own character, to write an ending for the story, ... The more 'blanks' in the textual skeleton, the more creativity is possible. Although I have defined maximum actualization and maximum potentiality as the two limits in my scheme, they are not likely to occur in actual texts: a work will situate itself mostly somewhere between the extreme and the middle of the line. A story can also evolve from actualization to potentiality, like in stories with an open ending, where the reader can fill in how the story will go on after the last written page.

Eco and Aarseth were mostly talking about texts and stories. When talking about the narrative qualities of an installation work, a different approach is needed, another kind of literary theory. Because my research in this field is currently not finished, I will dedicate the rest of this section to outlining some problems.

The concept of story becomes problematic when talking about installation art. If a story can and has been defined in many ways during the last century by Russian formalists, structuralists and poststructuralists, a minimal definition will still include a notion of ordering & linking of events (any kind of meaningful relations between events - cfr. Herman & Vervaeck, 2001) in some kind of temporal 'relief' (note 1). All of which becomes unclear in installation art: what is the succession of events? If the installation takes the form of a static, non-changing artwork, where is the evolution of time then, is there even a temporal dimension? What if the artist (like in conceptual art) doesn't want to tell a story? Can an artwork where two people communicate to each other via sounds & images (cfr. M.U.S.H.) possibly have a story? Or where do we find a story in land art?
    The word story is in my opinion too much connected to a text-based medium and to the tradition of literature/narratology to be still useful for installation art. To detect the narrative qualities in installation art, I take refuge to a 'safer', more neutral and flexible term, narrative. Although some may argue that the same problems may occur with narrative as with story, I feel that narrative can express exactly what I want to investigate. I have defined narrative as a dynamic act of reconstruction of the 'event' (experiencing the installation work) and construction of meaning during (and after) the confrontation with participatory art, which provides the spectator with scattered (visual, auditive, physical) information. Narrative doesn't refer to anything that already exists (actualized), but something that is potentially present and has to be defined by the spectator. It is the possibility and the ability to explore the narrative freedom in the artwork.

It's necessary to mention that the artist will often include his own narrative: (technical) descriptions/theories/essays. This poses us with an interesting question: to what degree should a spectator, before experiencing the work, be informed about the intention/ideas of the artist and to what degree can he have the freedom to construct a meaning for himself?
    Especially now, this question has a certain importance, considering the fact that artworks are becoming increasingly complex (for some artworks you even need a 'manual', as complicated as the one from my microwave oven, in order to even experience the art!). More artists also find it important to attach a theory to their work about current developments (globalization, endless networks across the world,...). According to my scheme, this means that the narrative freedom of the spectator can becomes an unstable mark that moves constantly between maximum potentiality & maximum actualization according to the information he is given.

Switching between actualized and potential narrative structures then also generates dynamic play between interpretation and creation. Depending on how open or closed the actualized narrative of the artists is (if the spectator is familiar with it), the potential for own creation can be measured. But if one would only take the information that the artwork provides by itself (spoken word, video clips, sounds, etc), one must conclude that no fixed actualized structure is defined. When the potentiality for narrative exploration is low, it doesn't automatically mean that the interpretational level of the information is equally low. The artist could be very straightforward in addressing the public and still leave a lot of room for interpretation (e.g. Barbara Kruger likes to work with slogans: Your body is a battleground). But if the spectator then makes very clear cut choices in (re)constructing a meaning, then the interpretational freedom (on a second level in the activity of the spectator) can become very limited.

In this paragraph I have highlighted some problems when trying to define the narrative quality of an installation artwork. First of all, it's useless to look for a story. The narrative qualities can be defined in this medium as the reconstruction of the experience and the construction of meaning. Depending on the narrative the artists themselves offer, more or less or no narrative freedom is allowed. The distinction between interpretational and narrative freedom has become useless, because there's no fixed structure in which the 'real' narrative can be consulted. The real narrative is the artwork itself, and that's where the narrative exploration starts in the first place. What should be investigated in more thorough research is the tension that exists between the narrative possibilities given by the artwork and the actualized narrative given by the artist. In this investigation, the spectator, as a receptor and performer, should be made central to evaluate the narrative qualities of an artwork. And finally, the research should evaluate the possibilities and the relevance of defining a different narrative theory for installation art.

Dynamic & static systems

To define static & dynamic systems, one must look at the behavior of the system. A static system can be defined as a artwork whose initial state stays continuous, unchanged during the presentation/reception. Examples are installation works that do not include electronic devices. The reconstruction of the Berlin Wall by Ilya Kabakov (Two Walls of Fear) is one example, Christo's land art would also fall under this category (although I acknowledge that weather conditions can change, but this doesn't change the static behavior of the artwork). Dynamic systems are every kind of video art, electronic art, digital art, web art & interactive art. All these types of dynamic systems can be combined in every possible way: video clips can be included in web art, video & electronic devices can be part of an interactive installation, etc. When looking at the behavior of the system in relation to the spectator, one can make a distinction between static and dynamic closed circuits (the system is activated and maintained by its own hardware/software - for example loops in video recordings) on the one hand & dynamic interactive systems (external input is necessary to activate the system) on the other. One could say that with static & dynamic closed circuit systems the activity of the spectator limits itself to the level of interpretation, emotional response and narrativity. But he doesn't actively make any substantial (physically perceivable) changes to the behavior of the artwork, like in interactive installations.

Interaction has been a 'hyped' term during the course of the recent years. Everyone wants to be interactive and every exposition must have "something" interactive. Even pushing a button is considered interactive. How can we define interactive installations in the context of open/closed systems?

Interaction in general could be defined on three levels:
  • interaction between people
  • interaction between people, through the help of machines/computers
  • interaction between computer & human
Interaction (Fauconnier & Frommé, 1.3 p.17-22) is about exchanging meaningful messages between two systems so that the systems themselves (because of the exchange) are modified from the original situation. Meaningful here means that the exchange doesn't consist of passively absorbing a message and sending out a message that is completely unrelated to what you have received. In a meaningful message one can detect a relation between the incoming and outgoing message. It is interesting to examine the different levels of modification that take place in the systems because of the exchange, but that is out of this article's reach. Interaction is about one action creating a reaction from another system, and again creating a reaction from the first system. The communication must be circular, or else we cannot speak of true interaction (Yacci cited in Fauconnier & Fromme, p.18-19). In this way, one could argue that interactive installations are necessarily open systems. But is it right to say that every interactive installation is an open system?

The V2 Archive (CMCM, 1.3, p.20) distinguishes different 'intensities' of interaction:
  • observational
  • navigational
  • participatory
  • co-authoring
  • intercommunication
We can argue here that it's hard to actually determine the precise degree of interaction. In the context of defining open systems, it's useful to distinguish only two kinds of interaction:
  • navigational
  • co-authoring
With this reduced scheme, we can define two kinds of interactive installations (note 1):
  • deterministic (dynamic) interactive installations
  • indeterministic (dynamic) interactive installations
A deterministic system means that, statistically, all possible results can be calculated. The spectator's behavior is predictable. The work Run Motherfucker Run by Marnix de Nijs (shown at DEAF04) is a good example of such a deterministic interactive installation. Running left or right on the treadmill allows you, at certain intervals, to choose between two video clips. Eventually you can, in a period of 25 min, see all the video clips. Your options are reduced to four (if you already chose to participate): running slower, running faster, going to the left, going to the right. All these options are taken into account and to each of these four choices, the computer will respond in a certain way. Other behavior from the part of the public is not possible, or even desired. The viewer 'browses' through the options and through the video material, it is a kind of hypertext-model, if you will. Because all the options are predetermined, the deterministic interactive system is a closed system.

The indeterministic interactive system determines algorithms for possible actions/movements by the viewers, but cannot determine the 'actual' behavior of the viewer. So, unexpected behavior and actions can give surprising results, and the indeterministic system can be seen as an open system. M.U.S.H. (Multi-User Sensorial Hallucination) by Joachim Montessuis & Eleonore Hellio (also shown at DEAF04) is such a system. The spectator in the room discovers that he can control the sounds/images projected in the 'Mush-Room'. After a while, slowly a face emerges out of the chaos of visual impressions. This is a spectator in another Mush-Room. The two spectators now have to try to develop some kind of communication by manipulating the sounds. The system itself cannot predict how they will do this, it simply offers the possibility, the medium. There is therefore a clear difference between a closed system in which the interaction consists of following a prescribed path the artist has laid out, and an open system in which the viewers can freely maneuver and even find new (unexpected) combinations within the system.


We have seen different definitions of what the open/closed system can be.
First of all, an artwork can be considered closed if it's in the intention of the artist that no changes are made to his work after the presentation to the public. But more and more artists consider their work as work-in-progress, where the goal is to give form to a concept through different manifestations, rather than to produce a finished end product. The open/closed artwork can furthermore be defined in relation to the spectator. In this article two levels were defined:
  • observer versus reality: contemplatory & participatory art
  • narrative explorations:
              actualization & potentiality
              narrative & interpretational freedom
Finally, looking at the behavior of the system, different characteristics can be distinguished:

    static system
    dynamic system
             dynamic closed circuit
             dynamic interactive system
                      deterministic interactive system
                      indeterministic interactive system

The notion of openness is then less some intrinsic value of a system, but a flexible term that can be used depending on the context in which a system/artwork is discussed. An open or closed system needs to be defined in terms of specific relations towards other elements/artworks/systems. Depending on the context, one work of art can be open & closed at the same time. Run Motherfucker Run would be an open system in comparison with watching a video on Rotterdam. But it is a closed system, when it is discussed in relation to M.U.S.H.

In this article it was only possible to briefly sketch the different meanings of openness in (interactive) installation art, and it is clear that more work and research is needed in this field. Especially the potential of applying a narrative theory to installation art should be examined more thoroughly.

Normally relief is used in reference to spatial characteristics, but here the metaphor refers to the structuring/experience of time in the story. The story takes place in different layers of time: development of different actions occur in a progression of time, linking past to present to future in a continuous or discontinuous (flashbacks) way.
The terms undeterminate interactive installation & determinate interactive installation have been used by Yves Bernard during a workshop on New Media in Ostend (Belgium), organized by CARGO asbl. Yves Bernard is the founder of the organization iMAL in Brussels.


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