In the 2008 presidential race, the friends-and-neighbors strategy of 2004 escalated with the first extensive use by candidates of web-based social-networking devices drawn from Myspace.com and Youtube.com models. The candidates’ websites, where supporters steered their conversations into geographical and ideological enclaves by blogging and threading, gathering “friends,” and inviting neighbors to house parties, offered ample opportunities for people to organize and segregate themselves.

Legal scholar Cass Sunstein argued in Republic.com 2.0 (2007) that the tendency toward intensification of sameness within homogenous groups, known in social psychology as “group polarization,” is alive and well in what he refers to as people’s pervasive “filtering” of their various media inputs on the web.11 The echo-chambering Sunstein found in studies of web activity has also been demonstrated in newspaper media. In 2004, University of Chicago economists took a measure of bias in 377 newspapers accounting for seventy percent of U .S. daily circulation. Liberal or conservative “slant” correlated strongly to the 2004 political affiliations of readers in their zipcodes.12 Sunstein’s larger point is apropos here, too: the unprecedented power of the individual to filter—to avoid engagement with disagreeable content or contrary points of view—jeopardizes democratic culture.

I am not nostalgic for fewer media options. Today’s access to information and opportunities via digital, networked media should be democracy’s dream fulfilled. Indeed, it sometimes is. But I recognize that filtering, in combination with tailoring, yields stagnation and complacency—gated communities and ghettos of the mind.

In effect, we are afflicted with the rise of an antidemocratic culture of interactivity. An unconstrained yet relentlessly manipulated free choice corrodes our potential for citizen deliberation. Contemporary market and media segmentation both force our hand and help us help ourselves to become more and more like ourselves and dismissive of those not like us. In an ironic historical wrinkle, participation itself—so vital to democracy and interactive art alike—is the friendly face of democracy’s new foe.

ARTISTIC COUNTER-INTERACTIVITY
If we really believe, and I do, that art can be an agent of democratic deliberation, we owe it to art and democracy to revisit art’s methodological readiness for this challenge. The population in any given locale is far less random and ideologically diverse today than artists of a former generation could assume. In their efforts to mitigate social segmentation, how artists select audiences for participation in artworks is paramount. Also of utmost importance will be whether or not artists devise terms of interaction that are likely to prick social bubbles.

Several stratagems that have already been in development over the now several decades long history of interactive art should be salvaged for today’s counter-segmentation needs. To illustrate them, I highlight two exemplars of these methods. The first, by Piper, is from an era that pre-dates the deluge of data mining and tracking, but continues to be methodologically instructive; the other is a more recent work by Rakowitz. Their examples have wide-ranging implications for interactive art because together they straddle the spectrum of interactive art developed so far. They encompass its commonly recognized range of categories: the “interventionist” mode that favors surprising unsuspecting audiences and what Grant Kester has dubbed the “dialogical” type, which relies upon cooperative relations with its audiences. They span both confrontational and collaborative practices, single-audience and multiple-audience works, and the short-lived and long-term artwork.13

Footnotes

  1. Sunstein, Republic.com 2.0. Especially see chapters 3, 4, and 6. In Chapter 3, Sunstein explains various experiments showing “group polarization.” One type of experiment involved face-to-face human interaction. Individual’s views on an issue were assessed before and after their exposure to either likeminded groups or those with opposing views. Consistently, individuals’ positions became more extreme and the people more emboldened in their views after congress with the likeminded, whereas those who had deliberated with people of opposing viewpoints emerged with greater empathy for the opposition. Another type of experiment involved website linking patterns. These showed a strong tendency of websites to link to likeminded sites and found links to opposing sites in the context of contempt and mockery. In Chapter 6, Sunstein focuses on blogging, finding there the most egregious territory for what he calls the creation of “echo chambers” of opinion and information.
  2. Bill Bishop, 300-301.
  3. In the literature on the subject, it is generally agreed that there are two main types of interactive art: the “interventionist” and the “collaborative” or “dialogical.” For historical overviews of interventionist works, see Claire Bishop, “Introduction,” in Claire Bishop, ed., Participation (London and Cambridge: Whitechapel and MIT Press, 2006), 10-17; and Nato Thompson, “Trespassing Relevance,” in Nato Thompson and Gregory Sholette, eds., The Interventionists: Art in the Social Sphere (North Adams and Cambridge: MASS MoCA and MIT Press, 2004), 13-22. For historical overviews of collaborative-dialogical works, see, for an early instance, Virginia Makysymowicz, “Through the Back Door: Alternative Approaches to Public Art,” in W.J.T. Mitchell, ed. Art and the Public Sphere (Chicago and London: University of Chicago, 1992), 147-57; and, for a foundational instance in the post-1990s phase, Suzanne Lacy, “Introduction: Cultural Pilgrimages and Metaphoric Journeys” in Suzanne Lacy, ed., Mapping the Terrain: New Genre Public Art (Seattle: Bay Press, 1995), 19-47. For recent essays containing comprehensive overviews of this work, see Miwon Kwon, “Sitings of Public Art: Integration Versus Intervention” in One Place after Another: Site-Specific Art and Locational Identity (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2002), 56-99 (which is also critical of “new genre public art”); and Grant H. Kester’s book, Conversation Pieces: Community and Communication in Modern Art (Berkeley, Los Angeles, and London: University of California Press, 2004), especially the “Introduction” and the chapter “Duration, Performativity, and Critique.”
Further Reading