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Aperture and Closure: A Cross-Section of Contemporary Art

Is studying 'Interactive Art' at university lost in academic translation and fed to students as a socially-aware gimmick? Scott Wilson discusses a drama course at Royal Holloway, Valve's game "Portal", and The Holocaust Memorial in Berlin.

What do the Holocaust Memorial in Berlin, Valve’s revolutionary game franchise Portal and DT2741 –an interactive theatre module for drama students at Royal Holloway – have in common?

What do the Holocaust Memorial in Berlin, Valve’s revolutionary game franchise Portal and DT2741 –an interactive theatre module for drama students at Royal Holloway – have in common? With regards to tangibility and immersion, quite a lot, actually.

2011 Ali Erturk © all rights reserved
2011 Ali Erturk © all rights reserved

Over the Christmas break I was lucky enough to spend some time in Berlin with a good friend. Berlin is an amazing city, but a city secure enough in its position as the focus of endless travel writing and history, without being the unnecessary holiday feature of a university paper. The full title of the Holocaust Memorial is ‘The Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe’. Large obelisk-type structures called ‘stelae’ are arranged in a grid across a depression in the ground, with the deepest point at the centre. The stelae are of different sizes and heights; they are otherwise unmarked, with occasional hearts and personal messages scrawled in the frost providing little moments of distinction. Architect Peter Eisenman wrote in his brief for the project that this architecture was going to be ‘uneasy’ and ‘confusing’ for the visitors within.

I have never been so quickly manipulated by something made by man. I entered the memorial with my friend, and as we delved deeper we naturally began to divert away from the other. You take a physical vote to explore further and deeper as an individual, and very quickly the rabbit hole becomes threatening. I have never believed in the idea that art exists to challenge us – and I am not saying here that this memorial is a piece of art – but I found the impression of suddenly being dwarfed by a physical and geometric dominance very unsettling. My friend was now long gone, and in the minutes I spent weaving amongst these obelisks with the sky overhead, these simple shapes proved I was lost, divided, and alone. This was my first experience of a very simple interactivity, one that relied on my own input before delivering a colossal and unflinching output. For all purposes, the Memorial is an interface, a giant circuit-board built to process your lack of control, and emit a sobering amount of data. There was no statement in a frame, or moral at the end of the story, just an interior acknowledgement that I had, in a very small way, been processed.

I am a sceptic about ‘interactive’ art and theatre, but it is undoubtedly contemporary and even quite established. Its inclusion as a module on many British university drama syllabuses, including our own, indicates this. But

In multiple interviews with drama students who had taken this course, I had entirely positive reviews. One student claimed that although interactive theatre initially suffered from social gimmick, “there was a negative, and in my opinion quite hostile and bitter area of theatre-makers … who designed interactive art installations, not theatre” the style has matured today: “the really interesting thing, which is happening now, is that modern companies like Frantic Assembly are developing proscenium arch, standard theatre into something exciting, like Othello, but set in a pub.”

When asked what an interactive theatre course achieved, a student replied, “Being able to create an experience for an audience to physically go through, rather than actors creates so much more tangible emotions for all involved. The audience are part of the performance.” The only grievance I encountered was more of a worry: “at the moment, I haven’t really experienced what I would call traditional [theatre]. If you want to do traditional things you’d have to get involved in the societies.” However, this is not the responsibility of this specific course.

Being controversial, contentious and challenging for the final aim of calling it ‘a statement’ should never be the end (which is a good three-quarters of the reason being why Carol Ann Duffy should never have become poet laureate, the final part being a question of genuine artisanship) or reasoning behind a piece of art. It’s a perverse type of creative martyrdom that doesn’t express insight. This is where interactive theatre could very easily fail, but the same can be said for any other kind of creative product.

And so I end on Portal: the product of talented US-based Valve Corporation, a game that quickly stops being a game and instead insists on dismantling and re-moulding the user’s experience as they place their own gateways, and traverse ordeals at the behest of a sadistic seminar leader. Good interactive art, and our attempt at it at Holloway, advocates something similar. Portal asks a player – or user, or audience member – to realise barriers are an internal thing. With trying moments that sometimes feel quite like studying at university, there is eventually an acknowledgement of your new awareness: “Now, you’re starting to think with portals.” And in all its forms, that’s quite a tangible and rewarding thing.

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