Kristine Stiles is professor of contemporary art and theory in the Department of Art, Art History & Visual Studies at Duke University. She’s written Concerning Consequences of Trauma in Art and Society (2010), Correspondence Course: An Epistolary History of Carolee Scheemann and her Circle (2010), and World Art Since 1945 (2011, with Kathy O’Dell).
Edward Shanken is author of Art and Electronic Media (2009) and editor of Telematic Embrace: Visionary Theories of Art, Technology and Consciousness (2003). His essays are in such journals as Art Journal, Art Byte, Art Criticism, aminima, Leonardo, and Technoetic Arts. He has a PhD in Art History from Duke and an MBA from Yale.
For Stiles and Shanken, “interactivity” and “agency” are bandied about a great deal in media art, often together, the idea being that in order for interactive art to be meaningful, it must enhance “the fullness of agency” (35). Only many interactive projects can be conventional and problematic. Kaprow eventually abandoned the happening, claiming people weren’t ready culturally to interact responsibly. This is not to his credit, really, because he tacitly collapsed all publics into one, but Stiles and Shanken provide a powerful anecdote with the “Hall Street Happening” (1963). After Cynthia Mailman fell through the garage roof on which she was dancing, audience members did nothing, and so exemplified the limits to interactivity and the aesthetic experience’s requisite cool detachment. The sanctity of art over agency. (But then as I think about this, perhaps that that public’s response. What if she’d performed for a group less informed about contemporary art etiquette? Might she have gotten help immediately?)
Yet the utopian dream for interactivity persists, married with the “rhetoric of novelty” trope in association with new media. Further, per Latour, power structures and prevailing social codes still construct “agency.” Technology is an interesting player here, too, because while technology itself is neutral, its very presence signifies a certain hegemony. In order for their work to be genuinely radical, artists must recognize that prevailing hegemony, and engage in Laclau and Mouffe’s “radical democratic politics” and Hardt and Negri’s “constituent activity,” which subsumes empathy, responsibility, and reciprocity.
“… we suggest agency that sets empathy in motion toward responsible interaction and constructive change is meaningful” (46).