Rest In Peace: Alexander Calder (1898-1976), and Piet Mondrian (1872-1944)

Sifting through the bookmarks in my inbox on del.icio.us, I clicked on a link that a friend had added, and this led me to the Mine Control website.

I remembered seeing the work of this collective at Eyebeam’s Beta Launch ’03 show. They showed Shadow, a lovely installation piece, where a disembodied shadow projected on the ground is able to interact with viewers as they approach it. It reacted appropriately to gestures cast in its direction – recoiling at punches, running away when chased, et cetera. It had an economy to its aesthetic and interaction that was quite appealing.

With this positive memory in mind as I continued scanning the Mine Control website, I decided to check out some of their newer work. Hoping for more of the same beautifully simple interactive work, I was instead incredibly disappointed by descriptions of their more recent efforts, entitled “Calder” and “Mondrian”.

As you might imagine, these pieces are derivative works of those two famous artists. In the case of each piece, the viewer is able to “create” a representation of a Mondrian-like painting or Calder-type mobile by touching a canvas.

My gut instinct upon reading about these two pieces and viewing the video footage available on the website is that while these pieces are cool party tricks, art they are not, and for several reasons. The role of the viewer has become so dumbed-down as to render them almost useless. This is in stark contrast to the relatively complex levels of interaction possible in Shadow.

Secondly, and I hope not to appear too old-fashioned here, but please keep your hands off the classics, unless you have a new critique to offer. Though the Mine Control website asserts: “Create your own composition in 10 seconds!”, I’m here to tell you that not everyone can create work with the same originality as Calder or Mondrian, and the “10 seconds” assertion only cheapens the act of creation further. I suppose anyone can create a meal in 10 seconds as well, by inserting a TV dinner into the microwave, but removing a wrapper and pressing “Start” doesn’t make you Emeril Lagasse, or turn your dinner into a pecan-crusted redfish.

Applying this “paint by numbers” effect to to the work of two great artists is an insult to their legacy. They arrived at their places in art history through a lifetime of creative investigation. To reduce their life’s work to a “style” that can be replicated by Joe Viewer waving his hands in front of a rear-projection screen strikes me as very sad. Should I be able to wave a piece of chalk in front of a chalkboard and come up with the Theory of Relativity? How would people snicker if they waved their hand over a keyboard and the work of great scientists simply appeared on a computer screen, as though they had authored it? The difference is, the work of great scientists is respected and even when “A Brief History of Time” appears on audio book and with a Cliff’s Notes companion, people still don’t imagine that anything less than a very gifted person arrived at those scientific conclusions. Why is the life work of artists valued less? And seen as easily replicated, as part of a game or trick?

Perhaps this is because the folks behind Mine Control don’t have any art training, and therefore don’t appreciate the complexity of art and its creation, and how at its best, creative acts in the art world are as worthy of awe as the latest scientific breakthrough. I am actually not surprised that the Mine Control folks don’t have art training, and perhaps I’m somewhat relieved. (I would have some serious questions for our art education system if they did – were they sleeping in both History of Art 101 and Theory of Art 101?)

Lastly, these two pieces signify what is wrong with interactive art in a broader sense, and why interactive art continues to receive lukewarm reception in the contemporary art circuit. With such disrespect for masters, how can the contemporary art world take interactive “art” seriously? Some pieces, digital or otherwise, that involve imitation of masters, are extremely effective and offer a critique that advances dialogue about artmaking. When, instead, the work offers no critique, but a simple aping of an artists’ style combined with oversimplified interaction that allows Joe Viewer to act as though they are creating a Mondrian-like piece, I can sadly understand why some contemporary art curators and critics have given up on interactive art.

So I implore the folks at Mine Control: Bring back the simple aesthetics and complex interaction design of the Shadow piece. Let Mondrian and Calder rest in peace. And please show some respect for the art world by taking into consideration the history and theory that underpins it, if you are going to continue to call yourselves artists.