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Christa Sommerer and Laurent Mignonneau: Interactive Art Research
by Gerfried Stocker, Christa Sommerer, and L.aurent Mignonneau, Editors
Springer, Wien, New York, Austria, USA, 2010
232 pp., illus. with DVD. $59.95 USD
Reviewed by Rob Harle
This book is both a visual and intellectual treat. It provides a comprehensive description and detailed discussion on the Interactive Art of two highly talented artist/scientists — Christa Sommerer and Laurent Mignonneau. They are early pioneers in interactive art and their works are rightly considered to be amongst the best in the world. This success seems to be based on a delicate balance and consideration of both aesthetics and scientific principles. The works honour nature, beauty, and life through complex computer programming and very carefully embedded electronic sensor and feedback devices. Other interactive works often appear too scientific or too difficult for a general audience to engage with. Sommerer and Mignonneau's works have a game-like fun aspect that audiences relate to immediately. “Natural and intuitive interaction with a virtual world is a major goal in our interactive computer installations” (p. 90).
Christa Sommerer and Laurent Mignonneau: Interactive Art Research is lavishly illustrated with quality colour plates — both photographs and screen shots of the actual works themselves. The graphic layout is superb which helps the book serve a dual purpose equally well. Firstly, as a wonderful coffee table presentation and secondly, as a serious investigation and detailed account of the artworks. As an added bonus the book comes with a well produced, user friendly DVD.
Following Stocker's Forward there are six chapters followed by an extensive section of Biographies, Exhibitions & Publications. The chapters are approximately equally divided between those written by others about Sommerer and Mignonneau's work and those written by the artists themselves. The chapters by the artists are mainly descriptive and explain in detail, together with early conception drawings, just how they created the artworks. Precision, extreme attention to detail and consideration of the audience are hallmarks of these two creators’ process and methodology. The chapters by commentators are generally brief and well written. Some are concerned to place Sommerer and Mignonneau historically, others discuss details of the works, together with audience expectations and reactions. A minor criticism of these essays is that many repeat the description of the same artworks, especially Interactive Plant Growing and A-Volve, which becomes a little boring after the fifth time of reading the same thing!
One of the duos' first major works was Interactive Plant Growing, which in 1993 catapulted them to international fame in the media art scene. This installation “...remains a major milestone in the history of the then nascent artform; it continues to be one of digital media art's most frequently exhibited works” (p. 7). The chief aim of these artists was “...to transform the traditionally static and object-orientated character of an artwork into a processual exchange between observer and artwork. The results of this interaction were not to be static, predefined, or predictable, but rather to be traces of a “living system”, of art as a living system” (p. 58). I am not normally a “fan” of interactive installation art and much of this type of art I have experienced is banal and predictable. Sommerer and Mignonneau's works are an extraordinary and notable exception, and I believe should be studied carefully by those artists thinking of working in this particular style. As the various essays suggest these two have set a high standard in interactive installation art that has become a hard act to follow.
Artificial life, both philosophical concepts and actual programming, are important factors in these artworks, as is complex systems theory. Casti in his essay discusses how science has made spectacular advances in complex systems but the humanities has been left behind. He sees this book as helping to remedy this situation, “A major contribution of this book is its internationally visible step to rectify this situation” (p. 60).
Of all the essays I must say Roy Ascott's contribution Techno-Shinto Beauty perfectly captures and describes the true essence of Sommerer and Mignonneau's work. All too often installation art emphasises the scientific at the expense of the art, especially such unpostmodern art concepts as beauty. These artist's works honour both. “So much telematic and virtual reality production in the artistic domain has been insistently sociological, tediously procedural or designed simply to distract us with cunning special effects. Beauty is seldom invoked. A-Volve, the canonical work of genetically informed art, celebrates the beauty of artificial life, evolution and genetic generation...” (p. 192).
I think I can say without fear of contradiction that this book is the definitive work (analysis, description and catalogue showcase) of Sommerer and Mignonneau's outstanding artworks. As such it should be a core text in art schools and perhaps also for students in ALife studies as the art-science connection enriches both disciplines significantly.