Interactivity in Religious Artistic Expression

March 23, 2011

Interactivity in Religious Artistic Expression

I was able to collect a few thoughts today for a presentation to the Faculty Forum at St. Alban's Episcopal Chapel. I've been doing a lot of thinking about the state of art and artists in the church, and how electronic art - interactive art in particular - could play a larger role in the way we experience God, spirituality, and worship.

So, peeling back the title of my talk, there are a number of buzzwords. In interactivity, I'm specifically referring to Computer Mediated Interaction that enables the artwork to be created on the fly. A participant engages in the work and makes it come into being. Some parts may be pre-constructed, but the work comes into being only when engaged by the audience. This brings the piece more towards the performance paradigm and it is beneficial to look at it in that light.

Traditional musical experience (and art experience for that matter), is engaged by an audience as observers. Interaction can come in many different levels, but they all bring the observer into the role of participant. In a musical performance, there is a saying that the musicians "fed off of the audience." This is a kind of interaction where the audience encourages the performers who adjust their delivery accordingly. There is an influence over the created work, however slight. As this participation aspect expands, it can move beyond simple causal or reaction relationships and into full fledged interaction - participants influencing the work and the work influencing the participants.

For a decent example of this sort of participant oriented work, take a look at: Final Wisdom.

In looking for ways that interactivity (as defined above) has been incorporated into religious art, I found very few examples. (As an aside, I'm not sure if this is because there aren't many works that tackle this subject matter, because there aren't many forums for this sort of work, or because I just haven't retained the works that I've seen. At any rate, I would be interested in finding more.) I do recall seeing a work by Margaret Dolinsky at the Indianapolis Intermedia Arts Festival in 2010. Emotable Portraits consists of a pair of video images, a chorus of angles slightly removed from an iconic image of Christ or Mary. As observers view the work, a camera and computer track faces, extracting them and inserting them into the chorus of angles. As this occurs, the observers unconsciously transition into a participatory roll. Their images are also incorporated onto the reflection in the icon's pupils to make a connection in both images. The interaction is somewhat passive, but effective to bring more meaning to the chorus and a deeper engagement with the participant.

This brings us to the crux of my current train of thought. The interaction in the piece above is a clever and fairly interesting one. However, interactivity brings much more to the table than just having influence on a work and I have yet to see religious works take this into account. You see, every action that we make has meaning embedded in it. Taking a sip of coffee, punching a punching bag, rising from bed, these motions all have meanings behind them. The ways that we express our religious experience, the actions that we tie into religious expression are endowed with much deeper meaning and they help us to be in a state of mind to experience God.

Take for example the process of the Labyrinth. A participant slowly navigates through a circuitous path while meditating and praying. The action of following the path helps to focus the mind enabling the participant to engage more fully in meditation. The action supports and enables the spiritual experience

Kneeling to pray, bowing one's head, raising one's palms in worship, raising your hands to accept communion - these are very powerful actions which could be incorporated into generating an interactive work that can be used to augment, enhance, or comment on this experience. It takes a little shift of thought, but looking at these actions and interaction as the experience of the art, not just enabling the art, provides a very rich and expressive resource for religious artistic expression.

I'm currently working on a collection of pieces called Corpus which are communal sonic experiences for a congregation. The first incarnation of the work, Prayers of the People, engages religious experience that is shared, the congregation praying. In the course of the work, individuals are encouraged to approach the alter and contribute their prayers to the sound of the fellowship as a whole coalescing into a meditative environment in which to have a collective prayer experience. As the project develops over this Easter season and into Pentecost, I'll be making an art page for it and post more information.