Please do touch…

The nice people at Participations: Journal of Audience and Reception Studies have published an article of mine for their most recent edition (May 2014), as part of an interesting special section on researching audiences in digital mediated and interactive experiences.

The article – “Please Do Touch: Understanding interactivity in the exhibition space” – is about how public discourse has reflected different ideas about interactivity in art galleries and museums over the last decade or so, such as what interactivity means, how it is experienced and when it is considered successful or not.

Here is a part of the discussion section at the end of the article.

“The Age of Interactivity: Reflections on Public Discourse”

Clearly individual characteristics and sentiments play a key role in predisposition towards and reception of aesthetic interactivity and require further focused research. If museums aspire towards producing an active audience of individuals, they require a more sophisticated understanding of how interactivity produces agency, a perspective that perhaps games studies can provide. Meanwhile artists may inadvertently produce more homogenised experiences for audiences, because of their understanding of and thus desire to control aesthetic interactivity. Some confusion between playground and gallery may not always be a bad thing.

While technologies for interactivity have changed radically over the time-frame of the sample, there is little sense of similar progress in the understanding of interactivity. Indeed, as technological advances create greater options for user input via a wider variety of interfaces (whose aesthetic can mask ‘computing’ almost completely), innovative technologies can push the problems with misunderstanding interactivity to the fore. To paraphrase one contributor to the discourse, recent advances in technology perhaps exceed our philosophical ability to deal with it. In contrast, traditional interfaces, limited technologies and minimal choice can still produce a more satisfying aesthetic interactivity by providing users with valuable agency, such as simply ‘turning the pages’ to read an early manuscript.

It is telling that the articles most engaged with computing and cultural discourses, where the meaning of interactivity is at the heart of the discussion, date from the last century. The recent articles reflecting more advanced technologies tend to minimise discussion and – by stating that the ‘age of interactivity’ has arrived and is making museums modern (by making objects touchable and interactive) – inadvertently echo Baudrillard’s caustic critique of such cultural imperatives. This suggests that public discourse has lost track of the longer history of ‘digital heritage’ discourse and experience (Parry, 2010). Perhaps the ‘age of interactivity’ is not just a period of time characterised by this concept, but reflects the amount of time interactivity has been around, and the wealth of experience that needs to be acknowledged. That interactives still (sometimes) fail to engage the audience shows progress can yet be made in understanding and implementing aesthetic interactivity successfully.

Discourses on interactivity are not just talk. Discourse attaches recognition to a concept in specific contexts of communication and assigns responsibility for its potential to specific actors or participants. Most importantly, public discourse contains a more complex mix of communication events than can be replicated in field or laboratory research and therefore presents a valuable source of data. These discourses on aesthetic interactivity show that when the appropriate content, interface and communication strategy coalesce in context, interactives can be a success. This happens when aesthetic interactivity is a) used to attract and engage with the visitor on a sensory level, b) empowers both the producer and audience (even to different ends), and c) delivers user agency while achieving artist/curator communication goals. By understanding more deeply how aesthetic interactivity operates, particularly in enabling user agency, the museum and gallery sector could see future success less frequently by luck and more often by design.


see more at Participations Volume 11, Issue 1

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