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Workshop: Interaction, Power & Ethics by Michel van Opstal

In the first week of February, Caradt researcher Michiel van Opstal held his workshop entitled: ‘Interaction, Power & Ethics’ at the St. Joost School of Art & Design in Breda. Over the course of three days, he invited students from the Photography, Film & the Digital department to break free from the traditional ‘white cube or black cube experience’. In museums and cinemas, visitors are generally only allowed to watch artworks or films. Interactive elements such as touching, adapting or changing works of art are rare events. The workshop’s assignment: create a series of prototypes in which the spectator gets to do something, play, interact with or experience the artwork. During the workshop, students researched innovative ways of interacting with their audiences and tested their prototypes.

The workshop’s set-up resulted from Michiel van Opstal’s research for Caradt, in which he takes a critical look at the assumption that spectator participation in situated art and design emancipates the spectator. He examines situatedness and participation as a powerplay between maker and spectator.  

 Together with thirteen students, he researched this power play. They wondered what force field arises when the spectator is able to interact with the artwork and what ethical questions could surface. As a maker, how much power and control do you give to your spectator and why? What controls do you want to keep and why? How far can you go in challenging your spectator? How do you want to address your spectator? What do you want from him/her and why? 

Lifeline

During the workshop, one of the students created a physical algorithm entitled ‘Lifeline’. On the floor, she made a network of nails. The spectator was given some thread and was asked to go nail by nail. At every nail, she confronted the spectator with a life question, for example: do you believe in God? The spectator could answer the question by moving to the right for ‘yes’ and to the left for ‘no’. The result was a line of ideas and choices for the spectator. Every spectator was given a different colour thread, creating a bright and colourful web of lifelines. 

Weemoed (melancholy) 

This prototype deals with the five stages of mourning. During the performance, one spectator stood in a white cube with headphones on and the other spectator sat behind a keyboard. Both spectators were able to see and interact with each other. There was an assignment for the spectator in the white cube for every key on the keyboard. The spectator behind the keyboard did not know which assignments were given to the person in the cube and observed as the person in the white cube performed the assignments. Meanwhile, the spectator in the white cube heard their assignments through the headphones and then did as they were asked.   

 Spectators did not feel they crossed an ethical boundary during the experience. The spectators behind the keyboard were mostly fascinated by the action and reaction of the other spectator. The spectator in the white cube was forced to step out of their comfort zone. 

Conclusion

In both prototypes, the maker eventually created a set of rules for the spectators. Using these rules, the spectator was given the opportunity to shape the artwork. Both offer spectators a physical experience that also forces them to confront something about themselves. In Lifeline, choices become visible through the movement of the spectator. Weemoed allows people to experience the five stages of mourning in a physical manner by performing assignments.  

Most students aspired to create a pleasant experience for the spectator but quickly realised that a threshold always occurs within an interactive artwork. The students concluded that a form of disruption is needed to go a step beyond, into another world and a new way of thinking. 

The power-paradox of situated and participative art & design

This research takes a critical look at the assumption that spectator participation in situated art and design emancipates this spectator, and examines situatedness and participation as a play of power.

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‘Power, control and chance play an important role in every creative process. I explore this complicated correlation.’

Michiel van Opstal was a researcher at the Situated Art and Design research group from 2019 until 2021. He is currently a tutor at St. Joost School of Art & Design in Breda and Den Bosch. 

Private: Michiel van Opstal arrow

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