It’s a tough world out there for an art enthusiast. There was a time when things were simple. Identifying “art" was a straightforward enterprise. Paint on canvas? Surely. A bronze or stone sculpture? Yes, please. Chinese ceramics? Count them in. But then the 20th century arrived.

In 1917, the French artist Marcel Duchamp submitted a urinal to be included in the inaugural exhibition of the Society of Independent Artists, an American association of artists of which he was a board member. The other directors weren’t too pleased and rejected his submission, saying it wasn’t art. Duchamp resigned in protest.

But the urinal artwork, titled Fountain, was destined for greater things. It would go on to become the most famous (or infamous) object of modern art and one that changed the rules. Art could now move away from being purely skill-based, towards the intentions and interpretations of the artist. No longer was it necessary for an artist to paint, be a skilled draughtsman or be adept at pottery. An idea or a concept was what mattered. Among other things, the Fountain birthed “conceptual art".

From Damien Hirst’s pickled sharks in white boxes (the mouthful The Physical Impossibility Of Death In The Mind Of Someone Living, 1991) to Tracey Emin’s unmade bed (just My Bed, 1998), all of them owe a debt to Duchamp’s urinal. Hirst didn’t catch the shark; he didn’t mount it in formaldehyde. But he thought of it.

Conceptual art spawned performance art, land art, interactive art and a dozen other variations on the theme. Today, computers have entered the realm. The rise of new technologies, some argue, has made art “post-medium". Others say technology is the new medium.

“Interactive art" is a great beneficiary of these technologies. The term, though, can be easily misunderstood. One can ask, weren’t the vivid frescoes of Pompeii interactive? What about the Renaissance altarpieces, inviting the worshipper to contemplate greater mysteries? The Chola bronzes? They all are, in a psychological way.

But today’s buzzword carries a different sense. It refers to works that directly interact with the viewer. It can be done by creating a space that encourages navigation, a work that engages the spectator through touch or depends on their feedback to “finish" the work. There’s a mutual communication as the work explicitly acknowledges the presence of a viewer. The spectator becomes a participant.

Take, for example, the site-specific installations of the Delhi-based Vishal Kumar Dar. He finds neglected sites, “out in the boondocks", to set up installations that use high-power sky-tracker lights, “like the ones used in wars to track fighter planes at night". For the Shanghai Biennale in 2016, he set up seven oscillating lights for Storm Deities in a 165m-tall abandoned chimney that was once part of a thermal power station (now the museum Power Station of Art).

‘Storm Deities’ by Vishal Kumar Dar.
‘Storm Deities’ by Vishal Kumar Dar.

Seemingly moving like random pendulums, each light was “time-coded with a software". The dance of the lights inside a dark cylindrical chamber was Dar’s way of asking how these sites, no longer functional, could be brought to life in some way. “There’s a lot of musicality to the coding. I’m usually working with metronomic metres so every single light follows one metre," says Dar. “They usually start together, but their movements take them into varying patterns." Then, he says, a time arrives, based on an algorithm, when all of them align. “They start functioning like the cosmos," he says, pointing to the seeming order of life amid the chaos in the universe. “Once it’s set into motion, we look at it as an autonomous field. We enter it. We can’t experience everything in one go."

“The light beam is important to me and its ephemerality interests me," he says. The power lights at night create an atmosphere not possible during the day.

Ephemerality is a running feature of most interactive artworks. Here today, gone tomorrow, then existing only in records and documentation. The fact that it often can’t be sold liberates it from the market, focusing solely on creating an “immersive experience" for the viewer, instead of pandering to a buyer.

For Maruts (2015), Dar filled a large temporary warehouse-like site in Pune with large pools of water, ankle-high level, with nine overhanging light beams, again time-coded. At night, in what would have been a heady experience, participants walked in the pools with overhead lights criss-crossing in the cavernous shed, conjuring shape-shifting reflections in the ripples.

Dar inside ‘Maruts’.
Dar inside ‘Maruts’.

The Chilean poet Raúl Zurita did something similar with Sea Of Pain at the Kochi-Muziris Biennale 2016. An old warehouse at Aspinwall House was filled with knee-deep water and visitors had to wade through it to read Zurita’s poetry on a wall at the other end. The swish and splash of the water was part of the poetic experience.

“These large sites change you or they have the potential to change you," says Dar. While his immersive works function at a distance, there are those which directly connect with the human body.

The Festivals of Experience

Burning Man is an annual summer festival that takes place in the remote Black Rock Desert of Nevada in the US (though it calls itself “a network of people" and not a “festival"). A week-long exploration of principles like “self-reliance" and “community engagement", the festival famously promotes all arts.

The “burners" dance, sing, look at art, do yoga, Pilates and anything else they fancy helps their general well-being (drugs are common). A no-holds-barred, nirvana-soaked stairway to heaven, the festival offers something for everyone. For many, it’s a modern-day pilgrimage.

Its fierce anti-capitalistic spirit makes it a playing ground for radical art. With the focus on the immersive element, artists can push boundaries, far from the snares of commerce. The results are often pleasing.

In 2014, Shilo Shiv Suleman became the first Indian artist in the history of Burning Man to have an installation accepted for their art grounds. Along with the neuroscientist Rohan Dixit, she designed Pulse And Bloom, an “oasis" of large metal lotuses at the base of which were installed pulse sensors. When you placed your hand on the sensors, the lotus would glow in time with your heartbeat. If someone else joined in at the other sensor, another part of the lotus would light up. “Research on biosynchronicity tells us that people’s hearts start to beat in time with each other when they spend enough time together," says Suleman. “It’s very mysterious." The glowing lotuses respond to in-sync heartbeats, their brightness rising and falling.

The synchronization phenomenon made for a thrilling experience. “We even had four weddings done under the lotuses," she says. “The installations help in creating awareness of our own bodies. These are instruments we normally use in hospitals to measure pulse, etc., why can’t they be used to create beauty?" she asks.

“For me it’s very important to create immersive environments that are interdisciplinary," she says. “Even though we feel our heartbeats, the lotuses make you see it. It makes the invisible visible!"

In 2017, Mexican artist Pablo Gonzalez Vargas came up with something not too different. In Ilumina, biometric sensors were attached to people’s earlobes. Their “unique state of coherence" was then fed into a 37ft-tall structure that produced a dazzling light show.

Katie Hazard, a team leader of the Burning Man central arts team, explains what makes the works unique, “Rather than passive observation at a safe distance that we typically encounter in a museum setting, interactive art allows for greater understanding and creative connection with others. Touching, climbing, entering, spinning, engaging and exploring are encouraged at Burning Man," she says on email.

‘Up and Up’ at NH7 Weekender.
‘Up and Up’ at NH7 Weekender.

Closer home, festivals are conceiving similar projects, though humbler in scale. Design Fabric, a Mumbai-based art-design forum, curated installations for the wildly popular music festival NH7 Weekender last year. “The pieces were made specially for NH7 and we were so inspired to do this, as emerging artists usually don’t get the avenues and revenues to do this kind of work," says project manager Vanshika Chaudhary on the phone. “But we ensured they weren’t just seen as décor, they had to be experienced as art."

To save the installations from getting lost in the thronging crowds, the size and interactive element were key to the selection criteria. An installation by artists Digvi Shah and Aeshna Prasad titled Up And Up, a large paper-plane structure made of metal, proved so popular that security had to be deployed to manage crowds wanting to climb it.

Experiments in Anti-Art

As an antidote to big art fairs, “anti-art fairs" that support artists overlooked by the mainstream are cropping up globally. An old factory in south Delhi will host India’s first, The Irregulars Art Fair, at the same time as the India Art Fair (9-12 February).

Subtitled “An Anti Art Fair for Independent Artists", it has been devised by curators Tarini Sethi and Anant Ahuja, who want to create an “alternative space for the irregular arts, for the weird and bizarre". The fair promises an “immersive experience". Around 30 artists will take over the three floors of the factory. The focus is on creating a space in contrast to the usual white cube galleries or fairs—no snazzy lights, no schmoozing crowds, no cafés, only an empty building with imaginations running riot.

While the mainstream market enables artists to carry on doing what they do, the majority of them never even enter the playing field, slipping through the cracks. Sometimes it’s just due to the nature of their art. It just isn’t sellable.

Factory space for The Irregulars Art Fair.
Factory space for The Irregulars Art Fair.

A risk of “interactive art" is that you could get lost in the search for meaning in the work itself. This is an outdated idea, Dar feels. “That you won’t get it unless you know the meaning of the work is an outdated idea. It’s not about getting it," says Dar with a sigh. “They should just come inside with an open mind and go back with an experience, that’s all."

What is technology’s place in the future of interactive art? “Oh, it’s huge," says Dar. “My investigation now is, how I can literally let go of materiality, the lightboxes, the projectors, and work only with AR (augmented reality), something like Pokémon Go."

Whether it’s going to be AR or not, the terms take us only so far. It matters little if the art of the future is interactive, immersive, experimental, digital, VR or AR. In the end, these are merely art-world buzzwords. There comes a point when the whole apparatus around the artwork falls: titles on the wall, essays, captions, context and terminology. What remains is an intense personal experience, unsullied by external references.

The experience is the culmination of art—a benediction of sorts. The kind of experience that might happen inside the tall, dark chimney of a Shanghai power station with dancing lights; or in a run-down factory festooned with installations. Or, in a far-flung American desert, under a glowing canopy of metallic lotuses, speaking to the collective beats of a dozen throbbing hearts.

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