Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Interactivity: The Give and Take of Artwork

My major attraction to the work of Joseph Cornell is the potential for interactivity within the pieces. The book Joseph Cornell: Shadowplay...Eterniday(Hartigan, 2003) includes an interactive DVD that serves as the next best thing to actually handling the works themselves. Video clips show the moveable parts working as the artist intended. Aside from a few major collectors and conservators, most people never get to see this in person.

Once I discovered it, the work of Cornell only reinforced some of my natural tendencies. My childhood was marked by intense creative endeavors that I never acknowledged as "artistic" until I was in college. These creations were not "art" in the traditional sense, so I discounted them until I could comprehend their place within my art making.

As a child I tended to construct devices to enhance play. For instance, there was a period during the time that Lynda Carter starred as TV’s Wonder Woman (as campy as it was) when my two younger female cousins and I would always play Wonder Woman when we got together. My lack of foresight ensured that I would always be the villain and never the hero. I fashioned aluminum foil into star studded Amazon headbands and bracelets for them. We even utilized some of that gold cord used for gift wrapping as the magic lasso. I know, this isn’t overly creative, but this was just the beginning.

This was in the early 1980s and well before every household had its own computer. One of the most memorable items was an ID scanner made from paper and cellophane tape. My maternal grandmother worked at State Farm and she always had an abundance of some oddly sized, perforated paper that evidently had some function within the insurance industry. I usually just drew on it in church. The ID scanner—again, long before we were all accustomed to debit card swipers and PIN codes—was amazingly functional.

It consisted of a small box that was taped next to a bedroom doorframe. There was a slot in the front where our ID cards were inserted to gain access to our top secret offices. This was not just a hole cut in the face of the box; it was a slim interior compartment that only allowed the cards to be inserted a certain distance, so they wouldn’t get stuck inside. On the top surface was a keypad with dimensional keys that could actually be depressed into the main box. All in all, it was fairly advanced for a paper and tape device that mimicked something we, as a general public, had only seen on TV programs with futuristic plotlines.

In the years just after the ID scanner I moved on to bigger and sturdier objects. There was a cardboard computer panel with multiple screens and keyboards. This was colorfully painted in poster paint and could be conveniently folded up for under the bed storage. The computer panel was accompanied by a red convertible sports car. It was just a profile view—kind of like those character screens at amusement parks with holes for people to poke their faces through for photographs. But the door functioned and I think the steering wheel did too, somehow. I know we had fun with the contraptions, though they are now compost.

I wouldn’t want anyone to have saved one of these things to hang on the wall in her home. Once I started to paint in high school I gave away several sad little canvases to family members, and those are things that I also wish would no longer hang on my relatives’ walls. All of these things, spanning about an eight year period, make up my early unconscious strivings to become an artist.

The painting was officially sanctioned art and the odd constructions were the early stages of viewer participation. Just as text and images are two connected sides within my current work, paintings and interactive constructions are another pairing. This came about quite subtly, but it was always there.

The pop sculptor Claes Oldenburg had a famous quote, in his 1961 manifesto, about how he felt art should function:

I am for an art that is political—erotical—mystical, that does something other than sit on its ass in a museum.
I am for an art that grows up not knowing that it is art at all…
I am for an art that embroils itself with the everyday crap and still comes out on top.
I am for an art that imitates the human, that is comic, if necessary, or violent, or whatever is necessary.

That is part of what I am about, too. If art is simply going to hang on the wall or sit on a pedestal and look "nice" then I don’t have nearly as much use for it. My paintings require the viewer to not only interact with the images but with the underlying text. If the paintings are part of an assemblage/construction then even greater interactivity confronts the viewer. The element of play is once again present.

Part of this may stem from my slight aversion to Modernism’s pure aesthetic aims. There has only been a brief period of time when art for art’s sake was seen as valid. For most of human history what we now term as "art" had a function outside of pure aesthetic contemplation (Nicholas Wolterstorff’s Art in Action gives an outstanding analysis of this). I respect and acknowledge the significance of multitude forms of modern and contemporary art. What I desire for my own work is to have viewers physically, mentally, psychologically, and spiritually interacting with it. I want the work to meet the viewer halfway, expecting something in return, but meeting the viewer wherever he or she is at in a given moment in life.

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