Reality: art and spectators

This article will try to explain which is the new role of the spectator through the example of two art works currently on show in the exhibition Realidad elástica [Elastic Reality].

Published: Apr 09, 2013
Reality: art and spectators

Hand-held, by David Rokeby. Photo: Marcos Morilla

By Naiara Valdano (@art_gossips), Art Gossips

I. Introduction.

On 15 March the exhibition Realidad elástica [Elastic Reality] was opened at LABoral Centro de Arte y Creación Industrial as blogger Marta Lorenzo already informed us a few weeks ago with her article Elastic Reality: an interplay between the virtual and the real.

The purpose of the exhibition by this centre in Gijón is to show the work by a number of artists who have experimented with new technological media to turn the virtual into the real. The reality is that new technologies have become key elements for art (and artists) of our times.

However, the relationship of art with science and technology is not only typical of the last century since it has always existed throughout history to a greater or lesser extent. Juan Crego, professor of audiovisuals at the Faculty of Fine Arts of the University of the Basque Country, commented the following some years ago:

“Western art has never really been far removed from the technological field, but has evolved parallelly and inseparably with the technology of the day, which, from this point of view, has always been "new".” (1)

We need only to remember how, for example, in ancient Greece there was a single term to refer to art and technique: tekhne. Furthermore, aspects such as the appearance of numerous pigments and colours over the years, the development of concepts like perspective and geometry, or the birth of inventions such as print assisted the development of the history of art.

Yet in spite of this, it was from the late 19th / early 20th Century that the relationship between both areas (art and technique) became even more evident. In fact, during the last century elements including photography, film, television, video and internet were born and developed. These have rapidly revolutionised ways of not only representing, but also of showing, communicating, designing and imagining. In addition, they have transformed traditional notions of the author, the work, and even the spectator.

In this short article, we will focus on the new role of the spectator through the example of certain art works on show in Realidad elástica [Elastic Reality].

II. The Spectators: passive vs. active

In the last few decades, the fast (and vertiginous) innovations have changed the ways in which the spectators themselves can relate to art and culture. Historically, visitors of a museum had an essentially passive role and simply engaged in looking from a distance at the artistic works being exhibited before their eyes. They were authentic voyeurs who received information in a unidirectional way. Yet over the last century, the role of the spectators has changed: the latest technological innovations have prompted them to become more active and curious. Over recent decades a new art has even emerged, called interactive, which allows the actual spectator to be involved and physically participate in the development of the piece.

In order to define exactly what an interactive work is, the specialists Mariano Sardón and Laurence Bender commented some time ago that it“(…) should be thought of not so much as a closed object with a given shape, but more as an ever-changing, dynamic system of interactive relations. During the composition of an interactive work, the artist defines a set of initial interactions; he/she defines what will be linked and in what way: he/she defines the rules of the game. The link, the connection itself, takes on the status of a work leaving to the participant the actual development of those rules of the game.” (2). In summary, a work of this type is an open field in which the viewer is the main protagonist.

In light of these words, we can highlight two central works on show in Realidad elástica in which the interactivity of the spectator is clearly necessary for the final enjoyment of the work (and even for its existence). These pieces are Hand-held by David Rokeby and Tempo Scaduto by Vincent Ciciliato.

The first of these is an installation that surprises the spectator at first, given that it consists of an apparently empty space. It only reveals its content upon detecting the hands of the visitors: when these move around the space, a series of images of real objects such as pills, cards and coins appear on the skin.  Our hands are transformed in such a way into active agents which we use to explore this world which was initially hidden from us.

It seems that this piece seeks to reflect on the importance of the human body in gaining access to information and in technological communication: our hands are important nowadays since they have almost become technological ramifications, capable of controlling and operating tactile screens, computers, smartphones and other apparatus (3).

The second work mentioned above, Tempo Scaduto, is an interactive installation in which the artist presents a series of scenes of murders and crimes that actually took placein Palermo, Sicily. Thanks to this work, spectators are able to face a series of cruel and tragic scenes in which they are the main actors: simply using their fingers, they can aim and shoot at a number of human targets without knowing for sure if they have been killed or not. The participants find themselves in a situation in which they have to take up a position -both physically and intellectually- and reflect on the morality of the act that is happening before their eyes (4).

As can be seen, these pieces present a new form of relationship between art and the visitor in which communication is not solely unidirectional (from the work to the spectator). On the contrary, the aim here is that all visitors to the museum respond to the exhibited stimuli and are turned into active bodies. Finally, the visitor is no longer an empty being who just receives information, but one who also wishes to (and should) respond, act and take up a position.

Due to this change in their role, spectators now become users since not only do they see the work from a distance, but they also take part in it. Rodrigo Alonso, professor and independent curator, has already referred to this in the following words:

“The participant in an interactive installation cannot be called a spectator. His/her relationship with the piece is no longer based on contemplation but requires a greater commitment: not only visual and intellectual but also physical. Interactive installations start from a potential state which isn´t set in motion until someone activates it andtampers or interferes with it. Without the concrete actions of the visitor, the piece remains in a state of dormancy; in a germinal state incapable of completing the possibilities it has been provided with by its creator. For this reason, we should speak  ofusers and not of spectators: the participants in an interactive work should make use of it, operate it, stimulate it; otherwise the piece doesn´t make any sense nor function at all” (5).

Besides this role as a user, it is also possible to think that this new type of spectator is capable of becoming a co-author of the work itself on exhibit. In fact, many works are practically unfinished and the artist delegates to the public the responsibility of finishing (or reinterpreting) the piece. In this regard, Alonso defines this idea:

“In reality it is a co-authorship between the artist and the user: the former establishes the parametres that provide the opportunities for interaction, the latter actualises these possibilities giving the final form to the aesthetic experience. (...) In this manner, the traditional process of art work oriented towards the object gives way to the relationship which stands between the work and the spectator or between the formal parts of a work, which are constantly redefined by the participant” (6).

With these new protagonist roles, museums and cultural institutions must give up traditional forms of exhibition and search for new approaches that adapt to the current needs of the visitors and works (and its new ways of communicating). In this sense, the art centre LABoral has known how to interact with technological works and adapt itself to a new world that is already here… Bravo!

III. Notes

(1) Lourdes Cilleruelo and Juan Crego. Algunas cuestiones sobre arte y tecnología, published in Vector (E-zine) in Februrary 2003. Document availableon the following link:

(2) M. Sardón and L. Bender, “Una aproximación a las obras interactivas como un sistema dinámico complejo” in Interactivos. Espacio, Información, Conectividad. Programa de Arte Interactivo I 2005. Espacio Fundación Telefónica, Buenos Aires, 2006.

(3) Full description of the work at: More information at:

(4) Full description of the work at:

(5) Rodrigo Alonso. “Algunas propiedades de las instalaciones interactivas” in Interactivos. Espacio, Información, Conectividad. Programa de Arte Interactivo I 2005. Espacio Fundación Telefónica, Buenos Aires, 2006. Words also mentioned from page 20 in La dimensión educativa en los museos de arte y centros culturales. Document can be found on the following link:

(6) Idem, p. 21.



Collaborating Patron:

With the support of the Culture Programme of the European Union

European Union

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