Interactive Art for a Challenged Democracy

Alison Pearlman

In the wake of a presidential race characterized by cultural wars, demands for compromise-averse representatives, and choices from an ever more narrowly cast and biased array of media sources, I wonder what role art has played amidst this cultural break-up. Are enough artists working to challenge people’s outlooks, encourage free and open public dialogue, and cultivate tolerance? Are artists fostering the willingness to debate that is so necessary for the realization of such goals? Or, are they part of the problem, making works that “preach to the choir” no less than political bloggers and pundits?

I specifically ask these questions of audience-participatory, or “interactive,” art because in this genre the art’s audience is also the artist’s medium. Take, for example, Adrian Piper’s now classic work, My Calling (Card) #1 (1986). At a social gathering, Piper presented a pre-printed card that stated: “Dear Friend, I am black. I am sure you did not realize this when you made/laughed at/agreed with that racist remark….” as a pointed rebuke to perpetrators of this type of comment. In this piece, Piper’s artistic medium was not so much ink on paper as human interaction. More than any other kind of art, the interactive stands or falls with the specificity of its social relations. We should assume, then, that it is fair to scrutinize the entire genre on these terms. Nevertheless, my questions focus solely on interactive artists who use their art to promote democratic ideals.

Adrian Piper, <em>My Calling (Card) #1</em>, 1986.

Adrian Piper, My Calling (Card) #1, 1986. Performance, business card; 2 x 3 1/2 in. (5.1 x 8.9 cm) each. Courtesy of Adrian Piper Research Archive.

The use of interactive art for this purpose is justified by the theory of democracy. In particular, the attempt to change minds through collaborative exchange, rather than spectatorship alone, finds support in the ideal of citizen deliberation. Theorists of “participatory” democracy such as Jean-Jacques Rousseau in the eighteenth century, John Stuart Mill in the nineteenth, Jürgen Habermas in the twentieth, and today’s Cass Sunstein have stressed that active and civil give-and-take among people of differing views is a bedrock of informed and socially responsible citizenry.1 In democratic society and democracy-promoting art alike, the deliberative model is well worth upholding because engagement with diverse, if sometimes irksome, points of view is essential to our sense of shared humanity. Through it, we acknowledge our collective interdependence.

That model of democracy, however, is buckling under increasing stress. Since the mid-1970s, but more acutely since the 1990s, the populations of leading industrialized nations have been experiencing balkanization. As I will soon expound, people have been self-segregating further and further into clusters of the likeminded through where and how they live, how they think, and how they communicate and receive information and opinion. In order to reinforce profitable niche affiliations, marketers have concomitantly exploited the trend by cultivating a fragmented landscape of media usage wherein people avoid dissonant information and opinions.

Confronting this anti-democratic tendency is not the sole responsibility of artists. Yet, democracy-promoting interactive artists cannot afford to ignore it. If they do not enlist ideologically diverse participants in their (inter)activities, their works cannot live up to their potential as agents of deliberation. Artists who want to have a democratizing impact should evaluate their methods in light of this challenge. Do they stand up to democracy’s latest threat—fragmentation?


  1. Carole Pateman’s foundational study identified Jean-Jacques Rousseau as the modern progenitor of this liberal-democratic-theoretical line. See “Rousseau, John Stuart Mill and G.D.H. Cole: A Participatory Theory of Democracy,” in Carole Pateman, Participation and Democratic Theory (New York and Victoria: Cambridge University Press, 1970), 22-44. To this short-list of theories advocating participatory culture add Jürgen Habermas’s 1962 concept of a “public sphere.” It is often invoked in dialogues on “public art,” including the interactive. Habermas envisioned his ideal of a deliberating citizenry in spatial terms: as a public square or citizens gather to argue—testing one another’s viewpoints and educating one another in the process. This model relates to many forms of artistic practice and viewership. See Jürgen Habermas, trans. by Thomas Burger with the assistance of Frederick Lawrence, The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere: An Inquiry into a Category of Bourgeois Society (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1991, orig. 1962). The most relevant works by Cass R. Sunstein, which bring concern with deliberative democracy into the Internet age, are Republic.com (Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2001) and Republic.com 2.0 (Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2007).
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