How Would You Define Physical Interactivity?

When I think of physical interaction the first thing that comes to mind is two actors moving in space with one another. The… vagueness of that statement is intentional, I suppose and is definitely a product of my acting training. Physicality however doesn’t need to be between two actors in the prototypical sense of the word; the definition of “actors” is malleable. Crawford’s definition of interactivity – a cyclic process in which two actors alternatively listen, think and speak – is a very apt one in that it takes into account the fluidity of the word “actor”. An actor can be a computer, a car, an iPhone or a human being. While I respect the definition that Crawford puts forth for interactivity, I find some of the examples that he gives to support this definition to be a bit antiquated.


Crawford states that “performance artists seldom interact with their audiences at any deep level” a statement Marina Abramovic would take great offense to. He claims “the dancer doesn’t set the beat or in any fashion provide feedback to the music makers” which seems to nullify the notion of a muse. At the end of the first chapter he acknowledges that the definition will change and that his definition is a useful one. I totally agree. What I think I’m at odds with however is the authors seeming lack of foresight – “Software designers who try to compete with movies, music, or printed graphics are guaranteed to lose”? Really?!


Crawford’s definition to me is a foundation, a base of a pyramid that is futilely trying to build to a pyramidion when in fact it should be working from the tip down to the base. What’s another layer to the pyramid, huh? My definition of physical interaction is when two “actors” cause a change in one another. My issue is that I struggle to define “change”. By my definition, a film is still not interactive because there isn’t a “change” occurring on both. But performance art can be interactive. So can using your phone. So can playing music. So can listening to music. My definition isn’t better or worse, it’s merely a feeble attempt to modify or evolve the foundational one put forth by Crawford.

What Makes For Good Physical Interaction?

I think efficiency is a defining characteristic of “good” physical interaction. This is sort of at odds with Victors rant against the underutilization of hands in technology. The author gets upset that the interface of the future is less expressive than a sandwich. Isn’t that sort of a good thing? It seems rather daunting to me that every time I would want interact with my friends via text message or e-mail I would have to go through as many steps as I would when making a sandwich. If a tool addresses human needs by amplifying human capabilities as the author says than why does it matter that the hand isn’t being utilized if the mind is. Now, it may be a bold claim that interactive technology is amplifying the mind but I think it’s doing so more than making a sandwich is.

Evolution, in my mind, seems to be a process of simplification: vestigial organs begin to fade away because of lack of necessity. While I’m sure there are a bevy of instances that negate that, that’s just sort of what I conceive evolution to be. If the apex of the “hand” has come and gone, then so be it. Do I think the hand is going to go the way of the appendix? Probably not – it would certainly make music a bit less dynamic – but I don’t feel as up in arms (pardon the pun) about the underutilization of the hand as Victor seems to be.

I think good physical interaction is …streamlined and practical. That’s a slippery slope because it downplays the importance of beauty and art. Art doesn’t need to be efficient or practical and I think there is certainly a place for art in physical interaction. Can you have good physical interaction without art? That to me is the real question and one I don’t have an answer for quite yet.

Non-Interactive Digital Technologies?

In keeping with my definition of what physical interaction is, yes, I would say there are works from others that are a good example of digital technology that is not interactive. Or at least, they utilize digital technology and are not interactive. One of my favorite exhibits is one I had the pleasure of seeing in a museum in Italy (the name of which unfortunately escapes me). It was a Bill Viola exhibition entitled The Veiling that featured a system of nine sheer scrims that were hung parallel to one another in a room. Each scrim caught the light from a video projection positioned on either end.

I suppose you’d have to use a pretty loose definition of what digital technology is for this exhibition to fall under it but for argument sake, lets say it’s a good example of digital technology being put to use. I was immediately taken by The Veiling because I felt as if I could interact with it. There was about a foot or so between each scrim in which you could walk and by doing so I felt as if I was submerged into the experience; like I was with those in the projection. This is not interactive however because there was no conversation taking place. Those featured in the projections didn’t know I was encroaching in their space and neither did the artist. While the façade of interaction was present, this was wholly a one-way experience.

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