The “Viewer”: Why participation matters in art

“Non-art,” “anti-art,” “non-art art,” and “anti-art art” are useless. If someone says his work is art, it’s art.” – Donald Judd

“It’s the viewers who make the pictures.” – Marcel Duchamp

“Obviously it is no longer important who is or is not a good artist; the only sensible question is – as is already grasped by some young people – why isn’t everybody an artist?” – Jack Burnham

INTRO: I wanted to further consider some ideas important to the role of the viewer/audience. These ideas were raised when we addressed Duchamp, Conceptualism and, likewise, more contemporary works. In fact, these ideas have been hinted at throughout the course, but I wanted to tease out this line of thinking to emphasize the ROLE OF THE VIEWER over the object itself. This should also help address the issue of CONTENT.

Using three examples, I want to demonstrate why and how “participation” became such an important element in our current definition of “digital art.”  Sorry for the length of the post, but it’s still a very short trip with some essential ideas in art history.

CASE 1: Marcel Duchamp!  Yes please and thank you! Ok, so we’ve seen that he made “optical” motorized works.  The viewer had to watch the work in motion to see the visual effect. Great use of “mechanics” and the elements of time and motion. But, Duchamp also made a simpler and more essential point about why the viewer/audience becomes so important to the development of art. So without the mechanics and more to the point…

What do you make of this?

The Fountain, 1907

Some of you probably have seen it. It’s an art history icon. Duchamp took a manufactured urinal turned on its side/back and placed on a pedestal.  Voila, Art!

Ok, so you are judging it, and asking yourself, why is this art? Why would Duchamp consider it art? This very act of judgment, your subjective view, not an objective view, is essential – is the point! Why? Because if all humans are capable of judging art, they are also able to define art… in their own fashion. So the artist defined this object as Art. But then again, you are doing the same thing too, if you understand this object as, well, a work of Art. As the art historian Thierry de Duve said in his brilliant Kant after Duchamp ( 1996), in the case of the Readymade, “there is no longer any technical difference between making art and appreciating it.” (de Duve, p. 305)  Art is a conceptual state affirmed by the viewer.

So if artists can make art about things already existing in the world, then they can make things that already exist into art. Likewise, the viewer does the same – and this is key. It goes the heart of why the viewer’s experience of a work of art matters.

CASE 2: Semiotics…  Or more simply: Can You “Read Me”?

The term “semiotics” has been mentioned in class as well as in our Edward Shanken reading in Net Works. It’s the study of language as a communication system. Sure, other paths exist that show why participation matters in digital art, but this works well. The basic issue to semiotic is: if language is just marks on the page (or sounds in the air), does meaning come from the writer/speaker or the reader/listener? Or from the shared system of symbols of language itself? What if meaning slips?

Here’s a Clip From:  Kim Beom, Untitled (News), 2002 (Exhibited at the 2005 Venice Bienniale.)

The artist clipped the news casters speaking to capture specific words or phrases that were re-assembled to form a new narrative. Even though the language they are speaking is Korean, the captions are in English, which we can read. The words come from different contexts, but the viewer reads the words together (as sentences) to understand their new meaning. Otherwise, the words are just individual “clips” arranged by the artist. Only when a viewer is present, do the clips get to be “read” and make the new sentences.

So the artist selects words/symbols already in existence, but the viewer/reader also mentally assembles and then affirms their new meaning.

In this case, the viewer still constructs meaning in one’s mind, but in reaction to “witnessing” a dynamic event in the art. A lot of art is like this, as well as digital “light shows” and the like. For instance, the Gluk Media MITCAVS Project from class (lecture 6, slide 33) is like a “digital light show” that responds to the viewer’s presence, but the quality of the work seems to fall flat because what the viewer “reads” (i.e. “I’m staring at a large colorful digital image of myself. Yay.”) lacks any in-depth meaning.

However, the digital artist can present elements that are more responsive to the viewer and therefore anticipates a new active role for him or her. The viewer can more actively “assemble” the meaning in a work of art.

CASE 3: Participation in Art Digital 

In digital art, many “readable” elements exist. They certainly do not have to be language. They can be various forms of images, or light, or links, etc.  These digital elements are reproducible, can be linked or be re-constructed and combined in various ways to produce variable situations (with potential meaning) in response to (or in anticipation of) the viewers’ actions.

In digital art, the hope is when the viewer becomes involved, his or her actions can interact with the elements in the work of art (the words, links, images, recordings, virtual projections, lights, sounds, etc).  The viewer engages with the existing elements that artists or other viewers provide and thereby activates the work’s meaning.

Now, if the viewer can change or add to or execute the elements provided, the viewer not only helps constitute the work’s meaning, but the viewer actively participates in creating the work of art!  Therefore, the viewer, like the artist, makes the art work “happen.”

Here are some digital art examples:

“One Word Movie”

by Yu-Chuan Tseng in 2003 (Sorry – you have to have or install Shockwave, then reopen your browser.)

– or –


Andy Deck, 2001 & 2006

This example was used in an earlier class.

One response to “The “Viewer”: Why participation matters in art

  1. Right. And this all underscores why the terms “interactive” and “participatory” are such important ideas for art made with digital media.

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