NESHAN, The Iranian Graphic Design Magazine

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Neshan 40

Different - 1

Networks of Interactivity

Roshanak Keyghobadi

Dedicated to Maryam Mirzakhani

The relationship between “visitor” and “object” in museums is changing. What used to be a more or less one-sided relation in which the visitor received the object in a reactive way is being turned into interactive connection, a network in which all entities – human and non-human—have impact on one another. What is produced from interaction is therefore unpredictable and irreplaceable. The museum is no longer the space of packaged experiences, but the site of emerging and sometimes unexplainable experiences that the visitor never suspected.
The interactivity is not simply an enjoyable encounter, but a transformative event that changes if not only the subjectivity of the subject, at least the subject’s relation with the objects and even the world. “Experience” and its relation to the subject has been the topic of thought of philosophers such as Maurice Merleau-Ponty, who have emphasized the active “lived experience,” which he argued that “our body is not primarily in space: it is of it.”  The museum is not a space one enters, one is of it, and we are not separated from it. This is another way of saying that we are always in interaction with the world. More recent thinkers such as Bruno Latour have thought of interactivity as a network of relations among all the actors. Latour puts forward the Actor Network Theory, which proposes the interaction between varied actors as the source for the creation of experience.  Actors are diverse, and can be anything: people, objects, animals, technology, art, texts, etc.  Therefore when encountering a museum exhibition a visitor is not the only “actor” but one of may actors in a network that is constantly negotiating, associating and performing, and Interaction causes “agency.” In an interactive setting (like in an museum display), when physical and tactile interaction happens between all the actors, a transient network takes form that is constantly making and rethinking.  
Based on the “Actor Network Theory” various components of a network create interconnected experiences,and in this case help actors (numbers, shapes, colors, sounds, math operations, electronic tools, people and the museum) interact with one another. Therefore, this interaction and connectivity facilitate uncanny and alternative perceptions and knowledge, for example in the realm of mathematics.

One way of understanding and learning mathematical concepts and ideas is through physical and tactile interaction with them as it is made possible at The Museum of Mathematics in New York City.  The museum has more than 30 exhibits, which explain mathematical concepts through interactive displays. Visitors with any math skills are encouraged to get engaged, participate, experiment, or simply be curious. In one of the displays named “Formula Morph”, turning the dials and swinging the lever changes the shapes of objects on the screen—by altering the parameters of the algebraic equations that define each shape. In three differently curved stations at the “Shapes of Space” display, visitors discover how shapes fit together differently depending on the curvature of the space they inhabit.  Visitors can touch the connected glowing spheres to make and see music and explore major chords, minor chords, and harmonies, and watch the patterns of colored lights as the music moves through space at the “Harmony of the Spheres” exhibit. At the “Pattern Mesh” display, different grids or gratings can be superimposed on a glowing table. The patterns emerge and change as the grids move around. At the “Polypaint” display, there are 17 possible wallpaper patterns, and an electronic paintbrush that can be dipped into a color and used to paint on a large simulated canvas.
Displays at The Museum of Mathematics raise many questions about not only the future of the museum as a cultural institution, but more importantly about the zone of in-between-ness that is produced in the encounter of the subject and object. After experiencing interactivity, would it still be possible to continue talking about subject and object as if they were binaries?  Merleau–Ponty’s phenomenological speculations lead to one line of questioning, while Latour’s ontology eliminates all distinctions between subject and object, human and non-human, and opens up different areas of knowing and thinking. This is another way of saying museum, is no longer an “other” site in the everyday but an integral part of the everyday knowing and living.

Roshanak Keyghobadi

Roshanak Keyghobadi holds a doctoral degree in Art and Art Education from Columbia University, New York and her MFA and BFA are both in Graphic Design. She has taught visual communication at State University of New York for several years. Roshanak writes about Iranian contemporary art and artists with special focus on design and typography and her essays have appeared in a number of publications including AIGA’s VOICE as well as Design Observer and her artworks have been exhibited internationally. In addition you can read more of her wittings on the artCircle blog.

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