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Art: Interaction vs Participation

Art: Interaction vs Participation

I am a Burning Man participant since 1998. Last year when I went to SIGgraph — my first since I began participating in Burning Man — the artwork there left me utterly uninspired. Nothing there brought to life a deeper desire to create like the artwork at Burning Man did, though both events deliver similar kinds of artwork.

Don’t get me wrong. The art at SIGgraph was good but it didn’t change me like the art at Burning Man does. I have been trying to define what that difference is. And more importantly, how to harness whatever aspect of Burning Man art makes it so much more deeply inspiring. I believe I am finally able to draw that line, and that line is what seperates interaction from participation.

What is the definition of interaction? The on-line Mirriam Webster dictionary defines interation thus: “mutual or reciprocal action or influence”. In art, interaction can be a button or control that has influence over the art in some way. Interaction in art brings the viewer into the art by allowing the viewer to have control over aspects of the art itself. This adds a dimention of action vs. passiveness, inclusion vs. exclusion, direction vs. submission. Interactivity allows a viewer to have defined control over the art in some form.

So what makes participation different from interaction? The second M-W definition of participation is this: “the state of being related to a larger whole.” A very powerful statement in the area of art, but what does it mean? How can the viewer become a part of the greater whole in a piece of artwork? I have an answer for this question, but first let me describe some examples of participation and interaction and see if that line becomes easier to draw:

At SIGgraph 1999, there was a marble-maze game. The viewers step on the virtual maze to tip it to make the virtual marble roll through part of the maze.

The first act of “participation” at Burning Man was at the first Burn. Larry Harvey built a large wooden man and took him to Baker’s Beach to burn him. People began gathering around. While he burned, a woman went over and held the Man’s hand.

I read a story about a group that brought materials for building sock puppets.

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