Multimedia Installations as a Form of Theatricalization of Reception of a Work of Art

Text was published in: Modern Theatre in Different Cultures. Ed. by E. Udalska. Warszawa 1997, p. 243-249.

Multimedia installations, which until recently have been treated as a symptom of experimentation, today are gaining the status of “regular” objects of art. Nobody finds it strange to see Bill Viola’s Hidden Secrets in the American Pavilion at the 1995 edition of the well-respected Biennale in Venice. This time, the artist — known primarily as the creator and producer of experimental videos, the leading representative of video-art, the author of events so important for the trend in question as I Do Not Know What It Is That I Am Like (1989), The Passing (1991), Deserts (1994) — designed five installations, which, although separate, constituted a whole. It is noteworthy, too, that there was nobody else but Viola representing The United States in Venice, as well as that it was an installation that he chose in order to present his ideas.
Multimedia installations today are a characteristic example of the process of ousting “works of art” from museums, and replacing them with “artistic events.” Installations, as events, are not a form of art as representation; instead, they constitute a form of spatial, three-dimensional, most frequently non-illusionary presentation. The very idea of presentation, as well as the concept of intermediality or multimediality, can be derived from a multiplicity of sources. The consequence of the pop-art manifestations were the so-called environments, which consisted of inscribing the spectator into a three-dimensional space requiring complementation in terms of the spectator’s presence. Environments, undoubtedly, presaged installation. These practices, however, were characteristic for the unidirectionality of the message, and, in fact, did not require spectators’ active participation in the creation of the event. Happening consisted in the theatricalization of selected life situations, performance stressed the subjectivity of the artist, who presented the work of art in statu nascendi, while installations project reception as a form of a spectacle.
In this case, multimediality is not understood as a mode of using a multimedia computer, or combining various media. Since as early as at least the sixties such techniques have been referred to as mixed media; multimediality is here conceived of as a possibility of influencing all the senses of the spectator, in the process of which a wide range of electronic effects and sensual synesthesias of various modalities are continually applied. The member of the audience (not necessarily a spectator), in real space and in real time, is the cause of the event, because without his intervention, without his activating the work of art — the work itself does not exist. Thus, not only does the recipient activate his imagination, but also his sensual, bodily experience. The putting of installation in motion by the member of the audience is a post-modern formula of the Fluxus tradition: “do it yourself” . However, while in the past it only accounted for the possibility of co-creation, today this gesture is a sine qua non condition of the coming of the work of art into existence: without the audience the installation does not exist. The crossing of the frame separating the space of the installation from the external space is the entry into the world of the spectacle. The spectator, crossing the limits of the proscenium, becomes an actor of the event, which is designed in such a way that the division into the creator and the spectator begins to undergo the process of destruction and thus loses sense.
Where did the growing interest in this mode of creation among the artists originate? Obviously, the development of modern technologies and their application in art is the substratum, upon which the art of the media sprouts. However, the degree of application of high-tech does not seem to be a decisive criterion: installations make use of both high and simple technology. As the director of the World Wide Video in Hague, Tom van Vliet, observes, videotapes do not readily lend themselves to being exhibited in museums. Video installations, or multimedia installations, in turn, may be treated as unique objects of art. They are not subject to infinite duplication — unlike videos, which are devoid of the possibility of individual “matricial” signature (just as it is in the case of the copies used in photocinema). The unrepeatability of the installations and their irreproducibility make their status similar to the status of a picture or of a sculpture as present in a gallery (Pijnappel 1993: 11).
Is it then possible to speak about installations in terms of an avant-garde of modern art? It is not infrequently that the very notion of art in respect to this type of activity is questioned. Zygmunt Bauman concludes that „in the contemporary, post-modern world, speaking about avant-garde is a misunderstanding [...] The concept of “post-modern avant-garde” entails a contradictio in adjectio„. (Bauman 1994: 176)

Still, installations cultivate and develop the idea of the active participation of the audience in the creation of an artistic artifact, which in itself stems from the spirit of avant-garde. The audience here, however, is not contemplative, passively subjected to aesthetic impulses; instead, the perceiver co-creates and directs the mode and the functioning of the work of art as an event.
The basically metaphorical conception of the “death of the author,” which was proposed by Roland Barthes towards the end of the sixties (Barthes 1977), receives its full significance only in telematic art, and especially in the art making use of Internet both as the medium and as the space, in which artistic, or para-artistic objects live. The modernist primacy of the author over the spectator is negated, especially in the case of interactive objects — which are of particular interest to me. Their constitutive principle is to convince their creators that the work of art does not exist without the perceiving agent, or, more precisely, without perception. Moreover, one can even speak about the identification of the work of art with reception. The necessary condition for such a situation to occur is that the author of an interactive installation must design an interface, thanks to which the activity of the spectator is put into motion. The devising of an “operational plan” pre-determines this activity, but does not impose strict rules upon it. Control over the installation is bestowed upon the audience. Control can be executed by voice, sight, touch — or even through the employment of interface appliances reacting to the sensorial function of the spectator’s-participant’s body — its warmth, texture, physiological processes, breath, heart action. Moreover, all of the mentioned forms of control can be applied simultaneously.
It is exactly this aspect, the aspect of inscribing the body of the spectator into the real space of the installation, that creates the situation of the para-theatricality of the event. Margaret Morse remarks that video installations do not resort to the identification treating the “not-I” as “the I”, which is well-known, for example, from traditional cinema (Morse 1996). Installation does not exclusively induce the work of imagination, as it also proposes a real experience, even if the space of the installation mixes real articles with virtual objects. Even in the case of installations employing Virtual Reality, that is ones based on simulative ontology, the bodily experience is real. The sources of sensual perceptions are actual. The metaphor of the prisoner of the Platonic cave ceases to make sense. In the installation the spectator turns into “a prisoner moving from the darkness to the light.” (Morse 1996: 174)
The crossing of the limits of the proscenium, the passing the threshold of external space and thus entering the world of the installation occurs through the activation of the interface. From that point on, the spectator becomes an observer of his own actions. The theatricalization of the reception of the event of which one is a co-creator, causes the identification of the positions of the spectator and of the actor. The viewer-perceiver acts in the space and with the space of the installation (especially when it is of interactive character), and simultaneously observes the results of his own intervention. The installation becomes a stage, upon which an unlimited number of singular, unique performances may take place.
It is as if automatically multimedia produces the world of the installation in the form of a hypertext. However, it is not the designer of the whole that is the producer of the hypertextual structure; he only establishes certain contextual frames. In fact, it is the spectator-participant, the actor “making use” of the elements left at his disposal by the designer, who is the producer of the hypertext. Thus the reception is the usage, it is a peculiar test, and not an attempt at deciphering, interpretation, or reading of senses. Of course, these aspects of the approach to the work of art are also significant, but it is the usage that is of supreme importance: the pragmatics of the para-theatrical situation. A reference to Richard Rorty’s concept that it is in fact impossible to separate the interpretation from the usage of the text appears to be perfectly adequate for the sake of the description of this situation. Polemicizing with Umberto Eco, Rorty expresses his conviction about the connectedness of these two procedures, about the elementary closeness of intentio operis and intentio lectoris (Rorty 1996). An installation is not a self-sufficient being, even if it appears to function in a closed loop of perfect cycles. It is only the spectator-participant’s use of the installation, his “immersion” in it, that allows one to speak about the reception being co-creation. The very term “immersion” does not necessarily have to be understood in the way it has been employed in Michael Heim’s well-known work devoted to the metaphysics of Virtual Reality (Heim 1993). Certain analogies, however, can be observed. Becoming “immersed” in the stream of computer-generated stimuli in order to enter the virtual world is the basic condition for the simulative spectacle to occur; similarly, in the case of the interactive installation, the crossing of the border separating the space of this installation from its surroundings is an analogous condition.
Jaron Lanier, one of the pioneers of Virtual Reality, argues that we are still “passive recipients of very immature, non-interactive broadcast medium. (Orenstein 1991: 63). It is only the virtual technology that creates the possibility of the coming into existence of the “world of post-symbolic communication,” of the “world without words” (Orenstein 1991: 63), which will no longer be ruled and created by television. Thus “The best thing about VR is that it will kill TV” as Lanier expresses it in “Is New Reality More or Less Possible?” (Lanier 1991: 59). Treating this issue on a large scale, however, one can but treat such a declaration as utopian “wishful thinking,” while the era of “a life after television,” although already proclaimed by some scholars (cf. Gilder 1990) — is nothing but floridly sounding rhetoric, which by no means matches reality.
The term “post-symbolic communication” readily lends itself to being applied with respect to the communicative situation created by multimedia installations. The communicative aspect, understood in the traditional sense as conveying certain so-called contents, is not decisive as far as their existence or successful “functioning” is concerned. The factor of greatest significance is the experience of the viewer-participant placed in the position of the observer of his own interventions. The blurring of the criteria differentiating the acts of creation, re-creation and communication is the negation of the reception of a work of art in terms of passive experiencing and contemplation, in terms of linear reading of encoded senses, which require deciphering at the level of language.
Accepting such rules of the game, the recipient agrees to being inscribed into the project of a given scenario of action, which — up to this point — is nothing but a rough draft. Whenever “the action and not the communication” counts, as John Cage claims (1996: 238), the question that will undoubtedly arise is that of the status of the installation as the work of art, as an artistic artifact. In a sense, the artifact no longer has any raison d’ etre, it becomes dematerialized. In fact, the designer — which, perhaps, might be a more adequate term than “the artist” — does not have the knowledge and the power over the matter which he uses; it is rather that he does have the knowledge (but no power) of how the perceptional apparatus of the recipient functions, and what use the latter can make of the structure-situation proposed to him. Presenting the work by Frances Torres, entitled Silk Stockings (1993), John Hanhardt states that “his installations are the laboratories of ideas in which the viewer must negotiate a position within the work, an active one of thinking and reflection” (Hanhardt 1993: 56). And it seems that this constant “negotiation” is characteristic for the majority of multimedia installations. The very etymology of the word “installation” includes the idea of situating certain events — resulting from the recipient’s synergic cooperation with the technologically shaped environment, ready for an external intervention — in a particular place and time. However, simultaneously, the very essence of the intervention is the introduction of changes destroying the initial state of the installation: the original state, in which the installation awaits the spectator. Thus the movement in the milieu of the installation always bears the characteristics of navigation in the “hypertextual space.” Ted Nelson — who introduced this term in 1965 for the sake of the description of certain peculiarly “dichotomous,” non-sequential modes of writing, which could exist in a computer environment — simultaneously extended the scope of its application to encompass a particular strategy of thinking and acting, which violated the principle of linearity and unidirectional repeatability. One’s intercourse with an installation is always of the character of an intercourse with a hypertextual structure. The higher the degree of interactivity, the greater becomes the contribution of the spectator to the creation of the project. However, the necessary condition in such a relationship is always the spectator’s constant presence at the stage that the installation is. If for the theatre to exist only the actor and the audience are necessary (which is not necessarily the case with the stage, as any real space of the event, any space of the meeting of the actor and the audience — determined in any way — may become one), the installation imposes the status of the actor upon the spectator. These two functions cannot be separated in media spectacles, which are based on presentation and neglect the questions of representation, referentiality, reference to the category of mimesis, or simulation.
Although the new presentational arts are described as “theatrical,” one has to observe an enormous difference between the traditional theater with its two worlds: that of the stage and that of the audience, observing the events taking place “somewhere else” from a safe distance, and the theater, in which both the public and the events occupy the same level of “here and now.” It works in such a way, as if the audience of this new variety of theatre could unrestrictedly step over the proscenium and walk about the stage watching the actors from different perspectives and looking at their make-ups and their props, overhearing their comments and remarks, and observing the process of creating a fictitious world and, simultaneously, although in a less distinctive fashion than it once was the case, perceiving the same world. (Morse 1996: 168)

These words of Margaret Morse adequately characterise the situation, in which the barrier between the proscenium and the audience has been abolished; yet in the case under analysis, which the recipient of the installation watches from different perspectives while moving around the stage, is himself — he observes his own person involved in an interaction with various components of this installation. One could obviously state that in this way, by means of various technological tools, the recipient meets their designers or “programmers”, and that in fact the installation is a very traditional method of communication, in which the media are the bridge allowing for the meeting of the creator and the spectator, for their dialogue, or even a polylogue. In my opinion, however, this is only the primary aspect of the event, especially since — according to Roy Ascott — the creator is not the producer of a closed text, but only the designer of the contexts of reception (Ascott 1995).
Thus the key moment of the interaction is the moment in which the recipient meets himself and his own re-actions. The installation Przestrzeń wyczulona (Intuited Space) (1996) by Krzysztof Mazur can serve as a perfect example of such a process. This is how the artist himself presents its assumptions:
The work is made up of two parts. In the first part, which occupies a surface area of 10-20 metres, there are scattered sensors which detect the presence of someone. They react to infrared, visible light, radio waves, or touch. These sensors, after the signal has been transferred, start up devices which evoke impressions that act on the senses, such as light and sound effects, the movement of objects, or olfactory impressions. A person who enters into “sensitivity zone” of this space is subject to media manipulation, but this is only apparent manipulation. Experiencing, as it were, his own presence, he learns to move in this area, and rather quickly goes from being a passive object under manipulation to being the active agent and operator, deciding on the choice of the effect offered. To put it another way, the human person here turns on and adjusts certain actions, which after the first spontaneous recognition he could assemble in meanings that are already not accidental, but his own” (Mazur 1996: page not numbered).

So much for the author’s comment. In the second part of his work, the spectator’s entry into the world of the spectacle takes place by means of a videocamera, which “transfers” the recipient into a space existing virtually, on a TV screen. Through the application of the blue-box method, the real person becomes set into a formerly recorded, and computer generated image. Thus, staying within the “scenery” of an artificial studio, the spectator becomes a co-actor of the spectacle, simultaneously watching it and participating in it. He can touch people or objects appearing in the formerly recorded material, at the same time following his interventions on the screen. It is not possible to separate the role of the observer from the role of the actor: being observed, the co-actor constantly observes. The mixing of the virtual order with the real presence of a person in the space of the installation yields the result of real participation in the event, while the corporeality of the participant of the event is as if doubled: the real body perceives its “mediatized” form in a constant dialogue with the electronic instrumentarium. What we achieve in effect by the above is a model example of how the spectator, manipulated by the media (and the designers) turns into the manipulator, or — to use a more adequate term — into someone playing a game, a player. In the case of this type of spectacle, however, no-one can relieve the recipient of the necessity of his entering the stage. This is the necessary condition for the event to occur. Thus, in this case, it is possible to speak about a specific form of theatricalization of reception.
Another example of such an installation is the work by Jacek Zachodni, entitled Kamień filozoficzny (Philosophers’ Stone) (1996). In this case the recipient is located in a three-dimensional and infinite space, thanks to the employment of a set of mirrors placed opposite one another. This simple construction has also been equipped with a strobe light, which can be activated with a microphone, into which the participant of the event speaks, sings, shouts. The microphone can be placed at one’s heart and then the light will burst to the rhythm of one’s heartbeat. Other sounds can also be produced to analogous effect, but regardless of what kind they are, all of them serve to testify to our physical presence in the infinite dimension. Our body, though multiplied in thousands of mirror copies, is still real. The subjectivity of the recipient manifests itself through the uniqueness of sounds, of which he is the author: the sounds are the co-authorial signature of the work.
As can be seen, theatricalization of reception does not have to come about as a result of the employment of complex, high technology. In fact, as far as the issue under discussion is concerned, this aspect is of secondary importance. The two events referred to, although so dissimilar, both show that a similar effect can be achieved in a number of different ways. However, the necessary condition for the event to occur is the condition of designing and creating the space, which the recipient will transform into a stage, where he himself will then change into an actor, or a co-actor — and thus will become a person to be the agent, the actor, and the spectator, simultaneously. A multimedia spectacle, taking place in real time, is undoubtedly a form of “extension” of theatre — and of the change of the traditional roles assigned to the participants of a theatrical meeting.


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