On “For digital artists, apps provide new palette”

Harmanci, R. (2010). “For digital artists, apps provide new palette.”  New York Times Online. Retrieved on October 4, 2010: http://www.nytimes.com/2010/08/20/us/20bciart.html

To illustrate the impact of mobile/handheld-device technology on the arts, this article describes the work of several individual artists who have used iPhone/iPad applications as an artistic format. In my overview, I focus on the work by Scott Snibbe and pose the following question: what is it about handheld apps that sets them apart and makes them a more successful environment for interactive art than any other?

Scott Snibbe is an artist for whom interactivity, i.e. the opportunity for audience participation, is a central theme. His installations are often designed to capture human bodily actions and respond to them. The audience thus has the experience of bringing an art piece’s content into existence. For example, in Falling Girl (2008) and Make Like a Tree (2006), people’s movements are replicated, with some time lag, by silhouettes projected onto screens, while in Blow-Up (2005) people’s breath triggers fans that reproduce its spatio-temporal contour.  Snibbe’s very popular mobile apps are closely based on an earlier Dynamic Systems interactive series that involved manual action, except that their original version used more traditional cursor-based interface.  In Gravilux (1998), one manipulates a simulated space filled with stars by manually exerting a virtual analogue of gravitational pull. In Bubble Harp (1997), the user directs the decomposition of a plane into an increasing number of polygons by selecting a discrete set of points on that plane.  Finally Myrmegraph (1998) allows users to determine the trajectory of animated ant trails by drawing. All three pieces involve highly familiar hand gestures that shape, through direct manipulation, abstract or naturalistic dynamic imagery.

The central point of the Bay Citizen is that the advent of the Apple mobile devices provided Snibbe and other artists interested in interactivity with an unprecedented vehicle for reaching audiences. Snibbe is quoted as saying that he had all but given up on interactive abstraction as an artistic direction, yet his early pieces in this vein were instant hits on iTunes once adapted to the handheld format. From the product design perspective, this illustrates the significance of the interface-design level of analysis, because it is at this level that the apps differ from the Dynamic Systems’ earlier, less successful versions. In terms of conceptual and interaction design, the apps simply replicate the earlier work.

Conceptually, the artist explains the motivation for the series as “blur[ring] the line between artwork and art-making tool. The artwork is the set of rules, which construct a system in which the viewer is an essential part.” A slightly more user-centered formulation of the same idea might be that this art bridges the gap between the experience of the creator and that of the audience, enabling the latter to co-create the work. The designer of the piece specifies the parameters controlled by the audience, yet he/she cannot possibly predict the content and the result of individuals’ contribution. It is this fundamental open-endedness that no doubt drives much of the works’ visceral appeal. Psychologically the experience of the audience is analogous to musical improvisation, where participants co-create and co-experience content simultaneously (this is perhaps why Snibbe’s work is sometimes described as a silent or “purely visual” form of music). The level of mental engagement involved in improvisation results in a very particular type of enjoyment, one that is impossible within the constraints of traditional author/audience division. I believe that a very similar type of enjoyment accounts for Snibbe’s interactive abstractions’ eventual success.

The artist describes an interesting set of interaction-design principles that he used in developing the Dynamic Systems pieces:

1) Using the full screen to facilitate an immersive experience

2) Relying on familiar human hand movements for input (point, touch, draw)

3) Ensuring that the principles of interaction are rapidly learnable without requiring any verbal instructions

4) Avoiding graphical user interface conventions, such as menus, windows, or icons

5) Avoiding the use of color.

These constraints may have to do with the mobile apps’ popularity, yet they as well were part of the original series, albeit implemented with different technology. Given that the mobile implementation seems to have made the difference between relative obscurity and relative success, some aspect of the interface used by mobile devices must be uniquely suited to successfully implement the interaction design principles that Snibbe uses in his work. Two likely critical features of the smartphone/tablet platform are

1) Tangibility—the touchscreen hardware enables the user to apply the familiar hand gestures (#2 above) to the graphic display directly, i.e. without a mediation of a pointing device. This makes the experience more natural from the ecological standpoint. Drawing, pointing and touching with one’s fingers may be more inherently appealing as a mode of action than operating some type of a cursor.

2) Ease of access—engaging with these interactive works has no direct utility or established cultural value. This may put a limitation on the level of commitment and effort the user (especially a novice) is willing to invest in this activity. Therefore, the apps may be best suited for short spans of free time or forced cognitive idling (on a bus, in a line, in a waiting room). A mobile device may be the only kind of interface that is readily accessible during such occasions.