Shawn Maximo
Installation view
#3, 2016
Credit: David von Becker
Courtesy Shawn Maximo Christopher Kulendran Thomas
Installation view
New Eelam, 2016
Mixed media Christopher Kulendran Thomas
Installation view
New Eelam, 2016
Mixed media
Shawn Maximo Installation view #3, 2016 Credit: David von Becker Courtesy Shawn Maximo
Christopher Kulendran Thomas Installation view New Eelam, 2016 Mixed media
Christopher Kulendran Thomas Installation view New Eelam, 2016 Mixed media
January 24th, 2017

From Viewer to User: The Ergonomics of Digital Art Display

Vera Petukhova on contemporary display, from the Samsung Experience to the Berlin Biennial.

by Vera Petukhova

User Experience (UX) is an emerging field focusing on the nuances of human interactions with different software products. The goal of UX is to offer a seamless experience between the product and user, creating a sense that products are used in the most natural way. Here the consumer has evolved into the user, a term that holds a very specific role in tech-based economies. Initially powered, in part, by the tech world, the demand to tailor a product to one's experience now circles out beyond technology to include many levels of usability, including art.

In her 2012 Artforum article “Digital Divide,” Claire Bishop posed the then contentious question: “Whatever happened to digital art?” And as a prolonged response, the art world has been rapidly catching up. Over the past five years, digital art, new media and Internet art have moved from niche genres to appearing in large-scale exhibitions and biennials. Accordingly, art practice and its display have now begun to function as mechanisms of contemporary culture that seek to streamline the consumer/product experience. While user experience commonly refers to how a person interfaces with apps and software, it also increasingly applies to the field of performance, particularly the idea of the audience and their needs, where the individual-focused, tailored experience is of utmost importance. Museum exhibitions, biennials and other modes of art display are shifting how they position audiences. The viewer is now the user.

The Experience Economy (1998), a book by businessmen and authors B. Joseph Pines II and James H. Gilmore, defines and named a new economy and a new society that has gradually climbed the hierarchy of needs and is now perpetually in search of a kind of self-actualization by way of an experience, a desire to fulfill the metaphysical need for understanding oneself. Pines and Gilmore’s book stemmed from an article first published in the Harvard Business Review and delineates how capitalism responds to consumers’ longing for experience over goods or services. The shift from goods and services to experience based economies correlates with the rise of the middle class and a society where one’s primary needs are met, and therefore more existential questions come into play.  Considering that, for the most part, access to certain leisure economies and aesthetic experiences were once only accessible to the upper classes, I’m interested in what happens when experience as profit becomes a middle-class, mass phenomenon. I propose that the outcome is a society where the consumer’s needs elevate to a kind of self-actualization or self-understanding. Fast forward to 2016 where this experience economy has hit a critical mass in conceptualization of a museum’s function in particular. The Museum of Ice Cream, a museum exhibition for dogs sponsored by a U.K.-based pet insurance company More Than, and the Glade-sponsored Museum of Feelings, are among the plethora of marketing ploys hawked as art exhibitions. Here the museum acts like an amusement park, predicated on the experience and matched with consumer desires. While these “exhibitions” function outside of the art world proper, the art world has also followed suit, creating modes of display that are dependant on experience. With the proliferation of artworks relying on perception, there has been a turn within formal art display towards the aforementioned user-based interactions.

Perhaps minimalist sculpture of the 1960s, which explicitly privileged interaction between the body and the artwork, provides a precedent for this experience-based paradigm. Articulated in Michael Fried’s seminal essay on Minimalist sculpture, “Art and Objecthood” Fried proposed that to: “ achieve presence through objecthood, requires a certain largeness of scale” and that this grandeur must somehow confront and apprehend the body of the viewer as minimalist sculpture often does. Here we see the precedent for a kind of apprehended viewing experience, where the audience becomes implicated within the work. The once academic approach towards Minimalist sculpture and objecthood has now taken the form of a user-based, experiential encounter. In the trajectory from minimalist sculpture to digital art there is a gradual repositioning of the subject.  The moves from the relationship between object and body in minimal sculpture become the relation of the body directed within the experience, staged in the immersive digital environment. The exhibition model for this includes soundscapes, video environments, light installations, immersive environments, and more. The interaction between the work of art and the human body has been redefined. The viewer is now a user implied by the narrative that is created by the immersive environment.

Artworks powered by digital mechanisms can now be stages for screen-based installations that present media-based work not merely as a window to another space but as an inclusive environment. These ergonomic sets that act as interiors for these comfortable viewing situations alongside props and stage devices create a feeling of not just viewing the work but experiencing it as a user. Much like commercial user experience, the relationship of one's body to a technological object is at the center of the work. Take Hito Steyerl’s immersive installation “Factory of the Sun” (2015), the environment positions the viewer in a lawn chair in front of a large screen that projects a narrative which feels like a multi-layered quest within a video game. Though the installation does not require any participation from the viewer, the glowing lines on the floor, walls and ceiling make it feel like the viewer has traversed onto a parallel plane of virtual realm, likely of a video game. 

In this installation, Steyerl pulls imagery from YouTube first person shooter video games, and broadcast television. Steyerl often employs such publicly accessible and democratic imagery. Often this is not the case with similar types of installations.. But often such is not the case with similar types of installation. The shift towards a user-based/experiential economy—while a more democratic phenomenon—still implies a certain level of affluence. This question of wealth was the dominant criticism of the heavily digitized 9th Berlin Biennial; there was a sense that the works exclusively targeted a class of people whose lives are powered by digital technologies and have the accessibility always to be plugged in. Though, DIS suggests, with their jabs at consumerism and sleek branding concepts, that this self-focused audience is actually the public that they are undermining.

We can look to the Berlin Biennial as the prime example of a visual manifestation of the proposed shift from viewer to user. Here DIS adopts a curatorial methodology that avoids making political statements and speaks directly to the mass phenomena of a plugged in leisure class who as an audience are often of a self-aware/critical disposition that ties into self-care and wellness. Their methodology is a kind of physical manifestation of user experience: a method that takes into considerations the optimal positions of the body to a product or object being used by an individual. This type of work manifests itself in the kind of ergonomic environments where video art is now often displayed. Ryan Trecartin & Lizzie Fitch might be the most recognizable proponents of this method of display. In the work, at the Berlin Biennial, you are watching video art, yet it is in an environment built to your body’s comforts. Our preferences are mapped in a way that caters to and augments the function of a traditional understanding of user experience. Artists Christopher Kulendran Thomas’ installation ala luxury showroom New Eelam (2016), also spoke to this, as did Shaun Maximo’s Dorn Bracht sponsored hybrid interior/exterior installation #3 (2016), at the Berlin Biennale. In these instances, the focal point is a screen set amidst a staged showroom-like environment signaling a space of utopian interior design while the content of the work itself calls existential or political questions into play, but only once the individual—the user—is situated within the installed environment.

The major shift that brought about the experience economy runs parallel with the rise of human-centered design. Now being inside the Samsung store in the Meatpacking District of Manhattan—the so-called “Samsung Experience”—doesn’t feel much different than viewing the 9th Berlin Biennial. One is meant to subvert the other, but both fit comfortably into the mold of luxury consumption and art viewing. If we look at installation shots from BB9 and the Samsung Experience side by side, it might be hard to guess which is the art exhibition and which is a concept store for the latest tech products. The curator or contemporary artist recognizes that there is a shift in their role towards becoming the provider of an experience. While it is important for the methods of art display to reflect the conditions and cultural phenomena of its time, the emergence of a me-focused viewership problematizes the goals of an exhibition. The ergonomic art experience that could challenge to our sense of self and understanding of the state of things around us paradoxically shifts towards feeling more like a wellness retreat than an intellectual challenge.  Can those paradigms change and can curators respond to those conditions without simply falling into a space of user-centered design? How can we move forward with user-centered design and its widespread influence over the overlapping consumer and art worlds in a way that prompts inquiries into new exhibitions models, pushing away from the white cube even past the virtual, towards yet unknown realms of future art exhibitions?

Vera Petukhova (Belarus, 1987)
Is a curatorial fellow in the MA Curatorial Practice program at SVA and is currently production / curatorial assistant for Performa 17. Her research interests include: media + communication, cultural histories, film, and, performance. She has curated video art programs and organized art exhibitions. Her work experience extends to various arenas of visual culture including, The Northwest Film Forum, Sundance Film Festival, as well as IkonoTV in Berlin, and recently with performance art organizations The Kitchen and Performa in New York City.


Extended image credit for New Eelam:

9. Berlin Biennale für zeitgenössische Kunst / 9th Berlin Biennale for Contemporary Art
Christopher Kulendran Thomas
Installation view
New Eelam, 2016
Mixed media
Developed in collaboration with Annika Kuhlmann
Film Production Klein and West, Mark Reynolds
Design Manuel Bürger, Jan Gieseking
Architecture Martti Kalliala
Production Design Marcelo Alves
Biosphere Matteo Greco
Creative Director Annika Kuhlmann
Courtesy Christopher Kulendran Thomas; New Galerie, Paris
Photo: Laura Fiorio

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