Interaction vs Participation

FIRST DRAFT I will clean this up and make the difference be more clear. But first, I just wanted to get my thoughts down on "paper".

I am a Burning Man participant since 1998. Last year when I went to SIGgraph -- my first since I began participating in Burning Man -- the artwork there left me utterly uninspired. Nothing there brought to life a deeper desire to create like the artwork at Burning Man did, though both events deliver similar kinds of artwork.

Don't get me wrong. The art at SIGgraph was good but it didn't change me like the art at Burning Man does. I have been trying to define what that difference is. And more importantly, how to harness whatever aspect of Burning Man art makes it so much more deeply inspiring. I believe I am finally able to draw that line, and that line is what seperates interaction from participation.

What is the definition of interaction? The on-line Mirriam Webster dictionary defines interation thus: "mutual or reciprocal action or influence". In art, interaction can be a button or control that has influence over the art in some way. Interaction in art brings the viewer into the art by allowing the viewer to have control over aspects of the art itself. This adds a dimention of action vs. passiveness, inclusion vs. exclusion, direction vs. submission. Interactivity allows a viewer to have defined control over the art in some form.

So what makes participation different from interaction? The second M-W definition of participation is this: "the state of being related to a larger whole." A very powerful statement in the area of art, but what does it mean? How can the viewer become a part of the greater whole in a piece of artwork? I have an answer for this question, but first let me describe some examples of participation and interaction and see if that line becomes easier to draw:

At SIGgraph 1999, there was a marble-maze game. The viewers step on the virtual maze to tip it to make the virtual marble roll through part of the maze.

The first act of "participation" at Burning Man was at the first Burn. Larry Harvey built a large wooden man and took him to Baker's Beach to burn him. People began gathering around. While he burned, a woman went over and held the Man's hand.

I read a story about a group that brought materials for building sock puppets. Folks each made their own sock puppet. The sock puppets started to become the alter-ego of the folks building them. Soon, they began banding together, stopping folks in the street and demanding they release their socks from oppression! All at once, the sock puppets became something more: The Sock Liberation Front. They took over the Burning Man radio station with their demands.

The pixel wall at SIGgraph. There were squares that folks could move around. Pictures were taken [I think] every 10 minutes. This was played back as an animation at the end of the event.

The Maze game: This is interactive because the viewers have control over the game. Is it participatory? Well, there's little room for creativity. The game is designed for one purpose only. You have control over the game, but you do not create something that becomes a part of it.

The woman: That expression was something new. Her actions became a part of the greater specticle of the Man burning.

The SLF: Making sock puppets was participatory in itself because the folks making them bring something to the socks themselves, but the deeper participation moment was the creation of the SLF.

Pixel wall: it allowed a certain creativity, but was well-defined and limited in it's function. I would have liked to see someone take the pixels off the wall onto the floor or somehow use the wall unconventionally.

But participation is more than mere creativity. A drawing program is no more participatory than the marble-maze game. It inspires, yes, but doesn't challenge in the same way.

When art is participatory, the viewer is working with the artist to create the art together. I propose that the difference between interaction and participation is the difference between the control being defined and being open-ended, between intentional use and unintentional, between play and creation.

Therefore participatory art, by its nature, cannot define how it will be used. And truly successful participatory art invites the user to use the art in a way that expresses their creativity in a unique, and surprizing way. Thus, the viewer shares the glory with the original artist themselves -- becoming part of the whole.

It is my goal to study participation vs interaction in graduate school. I believe this is a wide-open area of study, one that spans across many disciplines in art as well as media and computers. I believe the study of participation in art will help define what makes good participatory art for those wishing their art to be something greater than themselves and their viewers together. For artists and software designers looking to include the viewers in a greater experience, pinpointing the successful aspects of participation is crucial to success.

[Note to self: Participatory art should necessarily be an *offering*. Expound later...]