This conversation with Christa Sommerer focuses on some aspects of the gigantic artwork that Sommerer & Mignonneau have been building together since 1992. After a brief synthesis of their career, the conversation will address the relationship between the living and the artificial; interactivity, dynamic systems and interaction; transmission through art, teaching and coaching of young artists. Through the responses will emerge dynamics of affect and emotion, these essential fuels of art making, before considering future trends.
Artist statement :
Christa Sommerer and Laurent Mignonneau are internationally renowned media artists working in the field of interactive computer installation. They are professors at the University of Art and Design in Linz Austria where they head the Department for Interface Culture at the Institute for Media. Since more than 25 years they develop interactive art works that have been shown all over the world and won numerous awards.
Artistic path :
Interactive art pioneers, Christa Sommerer and Laurent Mignonneau persue a career as artists-professors-researchers. Their artworks, which have earned countless awards including two Ars Electronica, has been circulating around the world, since « Interactive Plant Growing », to the most recent ones, « Egometer » and « Neuro Mirror ». At the heart of their approach is interactivity in all its forms that promotes the dynamic encounter of the participants not only with species, remotely located visitors but also with invisible energies. Playful and simple at first, each work reveals its own complexity and innovation. By crossing old and new devices, each work questions both our relationship to time, to the living and to the artifice in a changing world.
Escape © 2012
Affect and Emotion
Life Spacies (c) 97
Neuro Mirror ©2017
L.B. : To begin with, I would like to ask you this very simple question. What did you find in technoart that was not in your first career as biologist and then as sculptor?
C.S. : When I studied botany I always was very fascinated about the diversity and esthetics of plants. My preferred subject was nature drawing and the botany teacher who taught this class told me I have considerable skills; however he recommended me to not become too imaginative in my drawings, but rather stick to the facts and only draw what is really there. Later when I studied sculpture and installation art, I created a complex whole concept called Ikonophylla, the idea was to combine Carl von Linné´s plant classification system with my sculptures. But here again the sculpture professor told me that it is better to not become too intellectual and conceptual and rather stick to gut feelings and not think too much. Finally when I met Peter Weibel in Vienna in 1990, he told me to forget all what I was told before and start to use the computer, because this would be the ideal medium to combine botanical issues such as plant growth and diversification, and to combine them with my sculptural interests. He also told me to read Louis Bec´s writings on his fabulatory epistemology based on Artificial Life and Technozoosemiotics. This inspired me a lot and I thought I should do something similar with artificial plants.
So if you had only three words to pinpoint your artistic mission, which one would you choose ? I say mission because it does not seem possible to last in this field and create so many artworks without a certain sense of belief, a projection in the future and a true desire to show and share these revelations with others?
Open artwork, interaction, user participation
Portrait On The Fly – Interactive (by Laurent Mignonneau & Christa Sommerer)
Concerning affect and emotion, how would you spontaneously define and differentiate them?
Emotional impact is what we want to create for the users when they experience our art works, affect is something more abstract, more like a strong feeling.
For example, when you dream about an artwork, conceive it, and realize it, what kind of force, quality and intensity (affect) do you feel in the process? Do you have examples to share?
Well in the case of the interactive art work « Portrait on the Fly » for example, we wanted to create live portraits of people when they interact with their own mirror image. But when we found out that we can use the motif of the fly for creating these portraits, we ourselves felt a very strange sensation of fascination and disgust. The fly itself has so many meanings in human culture, there are so many proverbs about flies and many stories about them. When we presented the final work, many people reported us similar feelings about flies and how they see them and what they mean for them.
“Portrait on the Fly”, that I experimented this summer at BIAN-Automata in Montréal, is quite impressive but also provocative in this time of critical weather changes…
During the whole process from creation to reception, what kind of emotion appears and orients your work?
Like stated above, first as an artist you have to be clear about what kind of emotion you want to evoke in people when they should experience your work. This emotion is also linked to a meaning or message, it should be experienced intuitively and non-verbally.
Would you say that your approach is rather intuitive, instinctive or linked with cognitive or psychological sciences or philosophical dimensions, if so which ones?
Yes depending on the project, all these areas are relevant. We usually need quite a long research phase, with reading, thinking, discussing, developing several versions of an idea, discarding them again, reacting to each other´s ideas, also fighting over some ideas…. it is usually quite a long germination process. But once we agree on an idea and both find it really good, then we realize it, test it, adapt it, improve it and present it.
Interactive Living and Aesthetic of Care
Interactive Plant Growing © 1992
It seems that technoart has offered you a field of activity that made blossom your interest as botanist or biologist, and afterwards as sculptor. We would like to ‘hear’ you, if I may use this term in a written conversation, about the evolution of your interests as a biologist, then artist, teacher and researcher. What has driven you in all these activities? And how have they contaminated (in a positive sense) each other?
Well as mentioned above, I first studied botany and anthropology and then later modern sculpture and installation art. During my biology study I was fascinated by the amazing forms in nature, the immense complexity of shapes and structures, species, families and taxonomies. But I always had an artistic view on nature, I believe. During my sculpture study I worked with various materials such a plaster, marble, wood, polyester… but I felt these materials reacted too slow and one needed too long for a single creation. I found these materials not flexible enough for the concepts I had. But once I discovered real time computer graphic at Peter Weibel´s Institute for New Media in Frankfurt and when I teamed up with Laurent Mignonneau, we began to work with generative processes and created artworks that deal with development, evolution, adaptation and variation.
Twenty-six years later, “Interactive Plant Growing” is still fascinating. Not only does it allow communication between participants and plants, but it serves as a dynamic mirror of multidimensional dimensions from aesthetic of care to plant’s vocabulary and syntax learning, and reflecting on invisible aspects of the relations between living species. During all these years, sciences has evolved and brought proofs about what was before considered as intuitions, impressions or subjective feelings.
How do you feel about that?
Nano-Scape, Electromagnetic Tangible Interface 2002
Yes I think intuition is really important in human communication and interaction. Artists are very good at working with intuition and feelings, and one of the reasons why « Interactive Plant Growing » keeps fascinating the public is that it works with some very basic feelings we have towards plants. We know that they are alive, that they sense us, some people even talk to them, but we do not really understand plants completely. We humans have a very strong symbiosis with plants, we need them, they feed us, we use them, but we also adore them, cultivate them and we have a strong emotional connection to them. This very special relationship we have with plants is something we wanted to address in « Interactive Plant Growing. »
Interactivity, Dynamic Systems and Experiencing
Christa Sommerer at 5uper.net Coded Cultures 2009
SISTEMES VIUS (conceptes i objectius del treball) 2011
Being at the heart of your artwork, interactivity seems to be not only technical but rather suggesting a larger intention of interaction, such as a desire to facilitate participation in many different ways.
Also the span of the interactivity in your work has largely evolved, not only in the variety of interfaces and devices but also in the nature of experience that you proposed to the participants. From the beginning, viewers were proposed plant growing with their touch, passing to building dynamic portraits with their movements, inviting insects, flies, on different scales with dialogues and stories, and recently playing with ego and mirroring.
How has interactivity evolved from 1990 up to now and how did this interest last such a long time?
S. : Interactivity for us is a means to get people involved in the artwork. For achieving this goal we have created various interfaces, from plants, to light detection interfaces, to 3D keys, to digital mirrors or sensing devices. The main objective is always to create an overall experience that allows people to intuitively feel and reflect the artistic message of the specific work.
With what criterias have you been constructing your interfaces from the beginning up to more dynamic systems and remotely locations?
In the 1990ies there were very little commercially available interfaces, so Laurent Mignonneau made almost all of them by himself, invented new interaction scenarios and even patented some of the interface inventions, such as for example the 3D Key system for « Trans Plant » and « MIC Exploration Space ». Later on when interactive media became so popular and when a whole maker culture and DIY community emerged, more and more interfaces became readily available. We sometimes use off the shelf technology if it serves the right purpose, but we have also still custom made interfaces, as for example in « Ego Meter ». What we use or develop is really always related to the specific art concept.
Artworks Generating the Most E-Motions
Egometer © 2017
It seems that motivation, central in the etymology of emotion, is very important in all your work, be it motivating a project, an experience, a connection, but also students interest, knowledge sharing and of course visitors of your artwork, from the devices in art gallery to the monumental scale of tower.
Do you plan to produce specific affects or emotions with your artworks?
For each of the works it is quite a different emotion, but generally, if the work is well designed, then the public intuitively understands what we wanted to say and convey. And what is more, people usually find a lot of extra layers and meanings connected to their own previous experiences. It is a bit like in a good movie: you understand the main message of the film, but everyone interprets it in a slightly different way.
Which artworks specifically have generated the most emotional reaction?
For you ? And your public? Any kind of emotion, positive or negative, strong or weak…
The artworks which generated the strongest feedback, reactions and attention so far are « Interactive Plant Growing, » « Phototropy », « A-Volve », « Life Writer », « Portrait on the Fly » and « The Value of Art. »
Do these emotions make you change your artistic intentions, and if so, how?
Yes, if we see that an artwork has not been fully understood or something is missing or if it turned out to be too complicated, we make iterations and adaptations. Sometimes we pick up an idea from a previous art work and develop it further in the next work.
Transmission to the Next Generations in Anthropogenic Time
Fly High Time Flies – ICC Tower – Hong Kong 2016
Considering your books about art and science, interface and interaction design, interactive art research… but also about your artworks “Wonderful Life”, if you had to extract ‘un fil rouge’ linking past, present up till now, linking different disciplines, what would it be?
The search for engaging the public into an artwork that is open and needs their participation.
As a teacher, what would you like to legate to the younger generations of students?
But also what do they bring to you year after year?
It is very inspiring to see art and media art through the eyes of the young students. As our society has changed dramatically through ubiquitous media and social networks, we now face issues and problems that were not dominant 10-20 years ago. What we want to do at the Interface Cultures program in Linz, is to raise awareness that we all have the power to change things for the better; it can be done by proposing art works or prototypes that can become game changers or at least raise intuitive awareness about these burning societal and political issues.
As a researcher, what problems (of any kind) would you like to address for the next decades?
Do you think that our time is critical?
Yes I think now we need more critical investigations about the use of technology and how it affects our social interactions and our environment. There is a certain need for critical investigations of interfaces. We need to look what is hidden in and behind these black boxes that media companies provide to us or even force us to use. From issues of manipulation, fake news to issues of privacy and exploitation, there are so many issues that need to be addressed in the next decade.
In this antropogenic era that the earth has officially entered, what interactive art may do?
Of course art does not solve problems, but it certainly helps to sensitize people, to offer them a place to experiment, to get out of their envelope.
Yes exactly. Art can help raise awareness, make people understand complex topics intuitively and also inspire them to develop these ideas further in their respective fields. It is already quite a good achievement if you reach this level of impact as an artist.
To conclude, how do you see the future of interactivity, dynamic living and artificial systems?
Interfaces will become more and more transparent and hidden. The whole IoT industry is moving towards embedding sensors in any given object, striving for smart cities, smart homes, smart cloths etc. Privacy, surveillance and data ethics will become huge topics. We as artists have to keep a critical eye on these developments and create our own propositions and prototypes, raise awareness, ask questions and propose new metaphors and new memes.
References (books and press reviews )
Sommerer, L. Mignonneau and G. Stocker, Christa Sommerer and Laurent Mignonneau–Interactive Art Research (Vienna/New York: Springer Verlag, 2009)
Ryszard W. Kluszczynski and Jadwiga Charzynska, Wonderful Life – Christa Sommerer and Laurent Mignonneau, exhibition catalogue (Gdansk: Laznia Center for Contemporary Art, 2012)
Sommerer, L.C. Jain and L. Mignonneau, The Art and Science of Interface and Interaction Design – vol. 1, Studies in Computational Intelligence, vol. 141 (Heidelberg: Springer Verlag, 2008)
Sommerer, L. Mignonneau and D. King, Interface Cultures – Artistic Aspects of Interaction (Transcript Verlag, 2008)
Sommerer and L. Mignonneau, Art @ Science (Vienna/New York: Springer Verlag, 1998)
Articles “Série Affect ou émotion en art immersif et interactif”
Boisclair, Louise et Lorella Abenavoli. 2018. « Audifier et spatialiser l’Einfühlung. Entretien avec Lorella Abenavoli (partie 2), Série « Affect ou émotion en art immersif et interactif », Archée, Montréal, QC, juillet. <http://archee.qc.ca/images/edito-2018-06/Archee_2018_06_Louise2.php>
Boisclair, Louise et Lorella Abenavoli. 2018. « Sonifier la phusis. Entretien avec Lorella Abenavoli (partie 1) », Série « Affect ou émotion en art immersif et interactif », Archée, Montréal, QC, juillet. <http://archee.qc.ca/images/edito-2018-06/Archee_2018_06_Louise1.php>
Boisclair, Louise et Philippe Boissonnet. 2017. « Évanescences holographiques : entre illusion, doute et réalité. Conversation avec Philippe Boissonnet », Série Affect ou émotion en art immersif et interactif. Archée, novembre. <http://archee.qc.ca/images/edito-2017-10/Archee_2017_10_PhilippeBoissonnet.php>
Boisclair, Louise and Jonas Fristch. 2016. « From Philosophical Insights to Affective Interaction Design. Conversation with Jonas Fristch », Série Affect ou émotion en art immersif et interactif. Archée, juillet. < http://archee.qc.ca/ar.php?page=article&no=520 >
Boisclair, Louise and Andrew Goodman. 2016. « About affect and the expression and extension of affectual capacities. Conversation with Andrew Goodman », Série Affect ou émotion en art immersif et interactif. Archée, février. < http://archee.qc.ca/ar.php?page=article&no=505 >
Boisclair, Louise and Nathaniel Stern. 2015. « From affection to reflection, from listening to craftsmanship. Conversation with Nathaniel Stern », Série Affect ou émotion en art immersif et interactif. Archée, novembre. < http://archee.qc.ca/ar.php?page=article&no=494 >
Sites de l’artiste
Christa Sommerer and Laurent Mignonneau are internationally renowned media artists, researchers and pioneers of interactive art. They are professors and head the Interface Cultures master program at University of Art and Design in Linz Austria. They previously held positions as Associate Professors at the IAMAS International Academy of Media Arts and Sciences in Gifu, Japan and as Researchers and Artistic Directors at the ATR Media Integration and Communications Research Lab in Kyoto Japan. They were Visiting Researchers at the MIT CAVS in Cambridge US, the Beckmann Institute in Champaign Urbana, IL, USA and artist in residence at the NTT-InterCommunication Center in Tokyo. Sommerer was an Obel Guest Professor at Aalborg University, Denmark and at the Tsukuba University Empowerment Informatics Studio in Japan and Laurent Mignonneau was Chaire International Guest Professor at the Université Paris 8 in Paris, France. Sommerer & Mignonneau have participated in around 300 international exhibitions, and their works can be found in museums and collections around the world. They also received numerous awards: the 2016 ARCO BEEP Award in Madrid Spain, the 2012 Wu Guanzhong Art and Science Innovation Prize of the People’s Republic of China; the 1994 Golden Nica Prix Ars Electronica Award. More information is available at: http://www.interface.ufg.ac.at/christa-laurent