Healing: From the Museum to the Mall

Julia Tinneny / Blog Post

What is the piece? Brian Knep’s Healing series (2003-04) consists of interactive installations generated through digital interfaces. A given piece of the series is composed of a projector mounted from the ceiling directly to the floor (looking straight down), a vinyl floor, and images of patterns projected from ceiling to floor. There is also a camera that captured visitors interacting with the piece, which is housed in a museum. This video documentation enabled me to view the 2003 piece via DVD on “Act React: Interactive Installation Art.”

How does it work? Visitors engage with the piece by physically entering the projected parameter that frames an intestine-like pattern on the floor. When a body enters the projector’s frame, the pattern is severed. The visitor’s entrance is penetrative: the pattern breaks to make room for the visiting object. The pattern remains affected for as long as the visitor remains in the piece and the digital substance will pulse or reflect around the body’s silhouette for the duration of the body’s presence in the piece. After the visitor goes, the lava lamp-like substance remains torn but attempts to reformulate itself, but evidence of the visitor’s rupture is depicted in tiny pieces. Although the substance attempts to regenerate itself, it will never appear to fully resemble its original, in-tact position.

Let’s Analyze. Healing’s interactive malleability lends itself to become a visual representation of all its visitors’ interactions. Because of this, the pattern is ephemeral, never existing as you first knew it because it is forever touched by those who came to engage with it. The title “healing” suggests there is a wound or trauma. While viewing I had some questions that will guide this analysis:
What is interactivity’s role is in healing (the concept of the title)? Are visitors who penetrate the piece causing a wound or are visitors assisting in the healing process? This is difficult to answer and may be a question with a subjective instead of an objective answer.
What is the role of the surveillance? Is the camera in place just to document the project? While commenting on human interaction, Healing depends on human interaction, and a recording device is bearing witness to these interactions.

With the previous question in mind, one interpretation of the recording camera’s function may speak to the range of visitors’ roles in healing. The video documents and teaches us about how people come into the piece. Some recorded interactions evoke violence (perhaps jumping on the ground to make the piece disperse), others involve curiosity (an element of patience to see how the piece responds) and some involve play (something of an eager or excited interaction). Of course, the prototypes of interactions I just named are up to my interpretation and may not be accurate.

Is Healing a metaphor and for what? After a body leaves, it will never exactly resemble what it was before that interaction. It has been touched by something, and that event leaves something of a scar in the visitor’s absence. It could allude to a human experience in the social realm. If so, it could be asking a visitor to consider: What do interactions do to us internally, to our memory? What are interactions outside of us/what are our impacts, or in this case imprints?

The piece is ambiguous and prompted existential questions that I was excited to entertain. I was left trying to figure out how this related to Erkki Huhtamo’s 1992 article, “Seeking Deeper Contact: Interactive Art as Metacommentary.” Specifically, the similarity Knep’s obscurity (discussed above) evoked Huhtamo’s description of Matt Mulican’s Five Into One-2. Using Mulican’s piece, Huhtamo describes that virtual reality environments create an illusion for the viewer of acting as both an observer and a participant (able to look in while simultaneously immersed) (13). Healing simultaneously contains viewers while offering critical distance, specifically the simple movements that change the piece – there is almost no decision making involved, which could suggest that viewers to be less active than they actually are.

Although no distinct value judgment is made perse, Huhtamo then juxtaposes Mulican’s work with more overtly political (perhaps activist interactive art) of Lawrence Paul Yuxweluptun in which a visitor is immersed into a spirit lodge to comment about indigenous land and modern-day colonization(13). In that exercise, Huhtamo problematizes the white masculinity within interactive art (13). This led me to ask: Is there an element of privilege in the ambiguity of Knep’s art? The question I raise may be moot and tired in discussions of art, but I’m interested in putting it in conversation with Huhtamo and exploring out what is at risk in his warnings of interactivity and its “hype.”

After the earlier mentioned juxtaposition, Huhtamo points to Brenda Laurel’s idea of “consequences” in virtual excursions, in which she describes that unrestricted movement is not an objective of interactive art (Huhtamo 14). Huhtamo then suggests that interactive art’s technology risks possession by “the market” (unlimited to an art market, but also military and governments) (Huhtamo 14). What does this mean for Knep’s Healing? Are there consequences? Perhaps, in the eye of the beholder, one could see the existential art of Knep as absent of political consequences. However, the piece does not overtly appear to employ new technology for technology’s sake, which is what Huhtamo and Laurel are working against.

AFTERWARD: How does this apply outside of the museum?
This warning against the shiny potential of a democratized art is relevant because in some ways, it’s here. Although years apart, Huhtamo and Nicole Carpentier bear similar warnings: urging people to remember interactive/participatory art’s history (Huhtamo 3) (Carpentier 1) and to remain conscious of the hierarchies that prevail in artmaking circles, which interactivity is not immune to (Huhtamo 15) (Carpentier 1). In Carpentier’s article exploring the cultural history of participatory art, she describes the discourses surrounding the role of the museum, its elitism, and the thinkers, then she provides examples of successful examples of inclusion in exhibitions (Carpentier 7).

Carpentier’s discussion of museum accessibility, entitlement, and elitism in the museum informed part of my decision to write about this piece. Upon viewing Knep’s digital interface pieces I was reminded of a time interacting with something similar in physicality. The piece I remembered was different: 1) I was in a suburban shopping mall 2) the projection was rich with sponsored content (example in figure 1). I thought this was cool and memorable at the time without concern for why I was participating or what it was doing. Children and adults alike were welcome to run through the installation that appeared familiar to Knep’s. This type of interactive technology is employed by corporations for branding their content.

What is the harm in this piece? Huhtamo mentions interactive malls as a project of an ideological or economic scheme – this is a loaded term – but he points to the deception of banking on something shiny and new like interactivity technology as creating a utopian paradise (Huhtamo 14). In his conclusion, Huhtamo quotes Andy Darley’s future facing comment to assert that new promises of interactive art will be struggled for, alluding to the displacement of technologies from interactive art to corporate or government projects (Huhtamo 15).

In conclusion, this put Brian Knep’s Healing in conversation with Erkki Huhtamo’s 1992 article “Seeking Deeper Contact: Interactive Art as Metacommentary.” It reviewed Huhtamo’s speculation of the user and the users’ role, his juxtaposition of white man’s art/obscurity with activist projects, and took into question the level of consequence in Knep’s work. Finally, it considered the piece’s doppelgangers (physicality), which appear in malls and in corporate branding campaigns and were of concern to Huhtamo in the 1990s when his article was written.

Works Cited

“Case Study: MagixWall.” Magixwall, Magixwall, http://www.touchmagix.com/market-solutions/case-studies.

Carpentier, Nicole. “A Short History of Participation in the Cultural Realm. Nico Carpentier.” The Digital Turn: User’s Practices and Cultural Transformations, doi:10.3726/978-3-653-02325-1/17.

Huhtamo, Erkki. “Seeking Deeper Contact: Interactive Art as Metacommentary.” Ken Feingold Artworks, http://www.kenfeingold.com/seekingdeeper.html.

Knep, Brian. Healing. Fifield, George, and Judith S Donath. “Act/React: Interactive Installation Art.” Milwaukee Art Museum, 2009.

Screen Shot 2019-10-15 at 4.50.22 PM.png