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The Dialogue Between Spectator, Artist and the Digital Artwork

The Dialogue Between Spectator, Artist and the Digital Artwork


The purpose of this text is to establish what the spectator

brings to the artwork and how this in turn affects their experience. The intention is to explore 20th and 21st century, digital artworks and how their creators utilise the spectator’s capital to establish new participatory experiences and outcomes. In digital artworks the spectator is seen to be user, collaborator and viewer. This essay seeks to investigate the contemporary issues surrounding the spectator’s dialogue with digital artworks using specific examples. Digital art comes in many forms but for the purpose of this essay I am going to concentrate on what Hansen coins Digital Facial Images (DFI) [Hansen, 2004: p127]. These are digitally generated close-up images of a face that are displayed via technology.

The spectator plays a vital role in the reading of any artwork. They are the instigator of the dialogue and willing participant. Barthes explains that the spectator brings to the reading of the artwork their education, their experiences and their ideas [Barthes, 1993: p143]. John Berger echoes these sentiments in his book Ways of Seeing by observing “the way we see things is affected by what we know and believe”[p8]. Berger goes on to relate to Jean-Francois Lyotard suggesting that we are always under the influence of some narrative, that things have already been told to us and we ourselves have already told the story [Berger, 1990: p12]. This idea that the spectator is the author and instigator of their art-viewing experience is not a new concept but it seems to be evolving with technology. Technology allows for even greater scope when it comes to the spectators individual experience of an artwork. New digital artwork or media according to Lev Manovich “is not something fixed once and for all, but something that can exist in different, potentially infinite versions”[Manovich, 2001: p36]. So, not only can the spectator create infinite connections with the artwork the artwork itself can exist in infinite versions, thus emphasising the concept of individual interactions and experiences.

The following digital artists use the spectator’s capital in numerous different ways in their artworks. They draw upon the spectator’s knowledge of the world and how they integrate with it. The interfaces that these artists use are common to the public. The spectator has been exposed to them before and is therefore familiar with their purpose and process.

Daniel Rozin’s work Wooden Mirrors 1999 (fig. 1) resembles the form of a traditional framed mirror placed upon the gallery wall, but rather than a silver coated glass mirror we are confronted by a network of wooden blocks

. These blocks react and respond to whatever passes in front of it. When a person approaches the piece a camera captures their image and changes the photons

reflected by the spectator into pixels. The wooden blocks pivot changing the level of reflection they cast to form the pixelated image of the spectator standing in front of the Mirror. The sound of the tiny motors is directly connected to the spectator’s interaction and highlights the physical change that they are making to the artwork. The piece works on two levels, as a mirror and as a window [Bolter J D, Gromala D., 2003: p33]. Firstly, the spectator recognises the artwork as a mirror, and approaches it accordingly, seeking a reflection. In doing this, they change the network of blocks to form the desired reflection. As Rozin states, “the simple interaction between the viewer and the piece removes any uncertainty regarding its operation, it is a mirror” [, 1999]. Secondly it can be described as a window due to the fact that the interface between the camera and the blocks is transparent. The interface is not seen in it’s own right, like a window, but it is what lies beyond that is seen. The spectator is unaware of or sees-through the technological process used in the artwork and views only beyond the technological function, the mirror. “An interactive technology is a medium through which we communicate with ourselves – a mirror” [Rokeby, 1995: p133]. Rozin can be seen to make a literal interpretation of this through his work.

Fig. 1 Wooden Mirror by Daniel Rozin

Heidegger [1978] talks about the concept of a tool becoming invisible when the user is familiar with it. His concept of the ‘ready-to-hand’ tool is when the tool becomes an extension of the hand and is no longer perceived as an object but a natural extension of ourselves. These sentiments are seen to be true with modern digital technology. In our western society we are immersed in technology everyday and we no longer seem conscious of technological objects. We interact with the computer without thought. It is this idea of transparency seeing through the physical technology to its function, that drives designers today. “Designers…must mix strategies and create an interface that is both transparent and reflective” [Bolter J D, Gromala D, 2003: p68]. In the Digital Artwork Dream of Beauty 2.2 Touch Me, 1999 by Kirsten Geisler (fig. 2) a small framed portrait of a beautiful blemish free woman stares directly back at the spectator. The spectator is invited to touch the portrait both through the title of the piece and accompanying labels. This allows the spectator to physically interact with the Beauty. This is an act usually not associated within the gallery space and so is intriguing to the user. They intuitively understand how a touch screen works due to being exposed to it in everyday life, but perhaps do not know the technological process and components behind it. Heidegger explains this state of transparency by saying that “the World of tools is an invisible realm from which the visible structure of the world emerges” [Heidegger, 1978: p69]. Depending on where the DFI is touched ‘she’ will react with varying emotions, laughing, weeping or even blowing a kiss when touched on the lips. The spectator has control of this virtual woman during the interaction and can manipulate ‘her’ reaction as they wish. Due to the instant response of Dream of Beauty 2.2 the spectator knows that their intervention is what has caused the reaction on the screen. The spectator has power over the narrative of this artwork. Geisler’s work adheres to the theory that “computers can pretend to be intelligent only by tricking us into using a very small part of who we are when we communicate with them” [Lev Manovich, 2001: p34]. Dream of Beauty can only react in predetermined gestures, we cannot change the gestures merely play them in a finite number of mathematical combinations. Manovich goes onto explain this type of interactivity as “branching interactivity” explaining that the user affects a predetermined set off actions, but, they however cannot change these actions. “The artist is seen to create an audience activated choosing mechanism” [Rokeby, 1995: p136] giving the spectator a sense of control (mirror) as the result is due to their intervention.

Fig. 2 Dream of Beauty 2.2 Touch Me by Kirsten Geisler

The author’s own work Little Brother, 2010 depicts a DFI staring back from a screen, it uses a hidden camera to track the position of the spectator and the DFI stares directly at that position. This has an unsettling affect on the spectator when they realise they are being watched. As the spectator moves so does the DFI following them until they are outside of the field of view. Little Brother links the interaction between body and artwork. The spectator recognises that their movements affect the DFI and that they are the tool by which the digital domain and reality are communicating information and the embodied human that they are [Hansen, 2004: p129].

Tiffany Holmes’ Nosce Te Ipsum, 1999 utilises the spectator’s movement towards a screen as a tool. The screen depicts a collage and as the spectator approaches, layers of the collage are peeled away. When the spectator gets to a predetermined distance, all the layers are peeled back and reveal the spectators image at the base of the collage. This embodies the concept that the spectator is integral to the production of a piece of artwork and, indeed, the first piece to the puzzle. “The (new media) artist now attempts to construct an environment, a system of communication and production, a collective event that implies its recipients, transforms interpreters into actors, enables interpretation to mentor the loop with collective action…it places us within a creative cycle, a living environment of which we are already co-authors” [Lévy, 1997: p123]. Holmes deliberately leaves the work ‘incomplete’; it is missing the initial image to create the collage. The piece invites the spectator to walk towards it, this movement physically demonstrates their contribution to the artwork, as collaborator, which is rewarded with the piece itself mirroring the spectator. Interactors themselves become referents of the work. “The works are akin to portraits” [Rokeby, 1995: p153].

Fig. 3 Nosce Te Ipsum by Tiffany Holmes

All of the mentioned artworks function on an immediacy and hypermediacy

level. They encompass both interfaces that the spectator is aware of, and those that they are not. The spectator can only experience real immersion when true immediacy is achieved. This level of transparency, however, does not exist due to the co dependence of both reflective and transparent interfaces, “our two contradictory logics not only exist in digital media today but are mutually dependent”[Bolter J. Grusin R., 2000: p9]. Instead of trying to achieve this impossibility, Andy Holtin accepts it and even draws attention to it in his piece Contraption for the Influence of Breath II, 2010 (fig. 4) . Holtin plays with the idea of hypermediacy and does not try to hide the interface of his work. Cables, fans and sensors are deliberately left on view for the spectator to explore in an attempt to understand their function. The spectator is invited to blow on a sensor that sends a signal to a network of fans that in turn blow plastic bags. The interface of fans blowing plastic bags passes down the room until it reaches a screen showing a DFI. The DFI then blows back towards the spectator, triggering the fans and bags to blow back mirroring the exact process that the spectator has undergone. Due to the openness of the technology employed and the design of the interaction the spectator is under no illusions of transparent technology. It’s as if the illusion has ended and we can see exactly where we fit into these processes, understanding our role as collaborator.

Fig. 4 Contraption for the Influence of Breath II by Andy Holtin

“The activity the exhibition exists for is between viewer and maker”[Baxandall, 1991: p8] but it seems that to some extent the spectator trades their subjectivity for this participation. Interactive artwork interferes with the spectator’s subjective process of interpretation [Rokeby, 1995: p141].

“The experience of even simple artefacts does not exist in a vacuum but, rather, in dynamic relationship with other people, places and objects” [Buchenau, 2000: p422]. The relationship between artist and spectator is evolving into a collaborative process within digital art. The spectator still brings their capitol to the artwork but they are now allowed in to finish the piece or make it behave in a manner that another may not, therefore creating an exclusive experience for both artwork, artist and spectator. This creates the idea that new media objects assuring users that their choices, thoughts and desires are unique [Manovich, 2001: p42].



Barthes R. (1993) Image Music Text. Fontana Press

Baxandall. (1991) Exhibiting Intention Smitsonian Institute Press

Berger J X. (1990) Other Than Itself. Aperture

Berger J X. (1972) Ways of Seeing. Penguin Books Ltd

Bolter J D, Gromala D. (2003) Windows and Mirrors MIT Press 

Bolter J D, Grusin R. (2000) Remediation MIT Press

Hansen M. (2004) New Philosophy for New Media MIT Press

Heidegger M. (1978) Being in Time Wiley-Blackwell

Lévy P. (1999) Collective Intelligences: Mankind’s Emerging World of Cyberspace, Basic Books

Manovich L. (2001) The Language of New Media MIT Press

Rokeby .D (1995) Transforming Mirrors: Subjectivity and Control in Interactive Media in Critical Issues in Electronic Media State University Press

Online References

Buchenau M, Suri J F. (2000) Experiencing Prototyping. 

Available at [Accessed 10/11/2010]

Kwastek K. Interactivity – A Word in Process.

Available at [Accessed 08/11/2010]