In (media) art, immersion is not only effective as a visual-spatial illusion, but also in the sense of cognitive immersion in illusory worlds or artistically staged processes. This is particularly true in the case of interactive art, which requires an active awareness of offers of interaction and places the focus on the participant’s actions. In this way, it enables effects that the psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi refers to as ‘flow’ – the sense of becoming absorbed in one’s own actions caused by intrinsic motivation. Here, the focus is not on a withdrawal from everyday life, but rather on the emotional and cognitive intensity of the experience. However, connecting the psychological concept of flow with theories of reception in art seems difficult, because the potential for aesthetic experience is usually attached to a fundamental requirement: aesthetic distance. According to this theory, the aesthetic object is only constituted through the viewer’s contemplation. In interactive art, however, how the living, breathing participant actually acts is crucial to the realization of the artistic concept, which, in its realization, asks to be both experienced and contemplated. This essay poses the question of which strategies interactive art develops to bring together the supposed opposites of immersion and reflection, aesthetic experience and flow.

I. Immersion and Virtual Reality

Interactive art calls for the viewer to actively engage with an interactive system designed by an artist or artist group. This dependence on the physical participation of the audience distinguishes interactive art from most other forms of artistic expression, which invite the audience to become cognitively active but do not engage them in the physical realization of the work. As a consequence, interactive art’s quest for the viewer’s physical participation necessitates a reconsideration of the possible modes of aesthetic experience in the reception of art. This essay will discuss the relevance of the concept of immersion for the participatory reception of interactive media art.

Jeffrey Shaw and Matt Groeneveld - Legible City (1989)
Illustration 1: Jeffrey Shaw, The Legible City (1988-1991).
Interactive installation, Collection of ZKM.

As several other essays in this volume show, the reception of art (including music, theater, film, and architecture) may be informed by different kinds of immersive experiences. In the context of new media and new media art, the concept of immersion has traditionally (especially in the 1990s) been closely associated with virtual reality. Virtual reality denotes a computer-generated environment that the participant feels part of or surrounded by and that opens up possibilities of interaction [1].

This is true for some of the ‘classics’ of interactive media art, such as Jeffrey Shaw’s The Legible City (1988-1991; see Illustration 1), or Char Davies’s Osmose (1995; see Illustration 2). The Legible City is based on the presentation of an artificial urban landscape that – instead of buildings – consists of three-dimensional letters. While navigating this artificial city by means of an interface resembling a stationary bicycle, the visitor can ‘read’ sentences lined up along the city streets. Osmose, on the contrary, invites the visitor to ‘fly’ through different formations reminiscent of natural forms like clouds and leaves. It thus stages immersion literally as the diving into substances or instances of matter.

Char Davies, Tree Pond from Osmose (1995)
Illustration 2.
Char Davies, Tree Pond, from Osmose, 1995.
Digital still captured in real-time through head-mounted display during live performance of the immersive virtual environment.

Both examples show that, in the context of mediated environments, immersion does not necessarily require a mimetic representation of the physical world and a remodeling of its principles but may instead be staged as a journey through alternative worlds that offers experiences different from those present in our everyday lives. The ‘reality’ referenced by the paradoxical notion of ‘virtual reality’ thus does not denote that which is physically possible but the phenomenon of ‘taking something for real’, namely, the illusionary.

But immersion may even do without visual illusion altogether. Concerning video games, game theorists Katie Salen and Eric Zimmerman expose the primacy of realistic illusion as an “immersive fallacy”. They hold that an intensive experience of play does not necessarily require the illusion of acting within an artificial world (cf. 2004: 450). This is why Staffan Bjork and Jussi Holopainen, again in the context of game studies, suggest a distinction between spatial, sensorimotor, cognitive, and emotional immersion (cf. 2005: 206). Visual illusion based on the three-dimensional presentation of navigable environments is thus only one possible facilitator of immersion within digital systems. ‘Immersion’, in this reading, serves as a kind of generic term for various phenomena of absorption into processual experiences. In the following, I will discuss one aspect of such immersive experiences described by the concept of ‘flow’.

2. Flow

‘Flow’ describes the cognitive and emotional aspects of being immersed in or carried away with an action. Like immersion, it draws on the metaphor of liquidity to denote its absorbing potential, but its emphasis is on the processual ity and intensity of an experience. The term was coined by the American psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, who defines “flow” as a state in which

action follows upon action according to an internal logic which seems to need no conscious intervention on our part. We experience it as a unified flowing from one moment to the next, in which we feel in control of our actions, and in which there is little distinction between self and environment; between stimulus and response; or between past, present, and future. (1975: 58)

Thus, the issue here is not mental or sensual illusion but the emotional and cognitive intensity of an experience. The concept of flow focuses on processes of individual perception. It describes a subjective experience, not a staged situation or the aesthetic potential of a specific medium. Csikszentmihalyi identifies several factors as constitutive for the experience of flow: focused concentration on the action, loss of self- consciousness, merging of action and awareness, intrinsic motivation, clearness and achievability of goals, and control over the situation (cf. ibid.: 40-47).

I consider the concept of flow as key to an analysis of the aesthetic experience of interactive art, as it relates experiences based on intrinsic motivation – a central characteristic of any kind of reception of art in general – to action-based experiences, which have been identified as distinctive of the reception of interactive art.

3. Aesthetic Distance

The suggested framing of action-based experiences as aesthetic experiences touches upon a central issue of aesthetic theory. The reason is that the association of aesthetic experience with physical activity challenges a fundamental condition to which the possibility of aesthetic experience of any art form is usually linked – that of aesthetic distance (cf. Wolf 2013: 14f.). The aesthetic object – according to the prevailing theory – is constituted only in the contemplative act of the viewer. For the literary scholar and founder of reception aesthetics Hans Robert Jauß, for example, the detachment of the reception situation from normal, everyday behavior is a fundamental condition of the aesthetic experience (cf. 1982: 31).

In contrast, Hans-Georg Gadamer describes the aesthetic experience of art as a transformation. Gadamer describes the artwork as “a true being in the fact that it becomes an experience that changes the person who experiences it” (2004: 103) [2]. He distinguishes the knowledge attained through aesthetic experience from logical judgment as a transformation that can be controlled only partially. The spectator’s experience, according to Gadamer, must not be equated with a distanced judgment. On the contrary, the experience is interrupted if the spectator “reflects about the conception behind a performance or about the proficiency of the actors” (ibid.: 116) [3]. While he goes on to say that aesthetic reflection has its own value, he does not consider it essential to aesthetic knowledge. For Gadamer, aesthetic knowledge is primarily based not on reflective judgment but on the process of transformation described above.

This admittedly brief citation of two key theoretical positions must suffice as evidence of the ambivalent assessment of aesthetic distance (cf. Wolf 2013: 14f.) within theories of aesthetic experience. It is here that the possibility of becoming directly absorbed in an aesthetic experience comes into conflict with the possibility of acquiring knowledge, which is commonly thought to be dependent upon a distancing of the self from the object of understanding. This tension is not restricted to the realm of interactive art but is accentuated here by the merging of action and experience. In this category of art, not only the relationship between aesthetic experience and knowledge but also that between aesthetic experience and action must be reconceived. The embodied action of the participant is indispensable for the fulfillment of the artistic concept, which is intended to be experienced and reflected upon while being unfolded.


8. Conclusion

As I hope to have proven by means of the three examples discussed above [Stefan Schemat, Wasser (2004); Tmema, Manual Input Workstation (2004); David Rokeby, Very Nervous System (1983 to present) - ed.], the aesthetic experience of interactive (media) art is often based on an oscillating process between flow and reflection; between absorption in the activity and distanced (self-)perception. All three works described require action-based reception in the form of explorative walking, gestural creation, or full-body movement. They do, however, differ substantially concerning their semiotic contexts: one offering a narrative setting, the second based on abstract formations, the third creating an atmospheric aural environment for interaction. Accordingly, the quality of the participants’ activity and its contextualization differ substantially. Nevertheless, in all three examples, aesthetic experience is informed by an interplay of flow and reflection.

Not all theorists agree, however, that reflection is possible during absorption in an activity. Marvin Carlson claims that states of flow impede reflexivity through the merging of action and awareness, the total concentration on the pleasure of the moment, and the loss of a sense of self and any type of goal pursuit (cf. 1996/2004: 22). Csíkszentmihályi, on the contrary, sees moments of reflection as a necessary counterpart to flow. He believes that specifically because flow prevents reflections on one’s consciousness, interruptions to this state, however minimal, are essential: “Typically, a person can maintain merged awareness with his or her actions for only short periods, which are broken by interludes when he adopts an outside perspective” (1975: 38). In the same vein, John Dewey describes a rhythm of surrender and reflection. He believes that the moment of surrender is interrupted in order to ask where the object of the surrender is leading and how it is leading there. Because surrendering to the object consumes the viewer by way of “cumulation, tension, conservation, anticipation, and fulfillment”, one must distance oneself enough to be able to “escape the hypnotic effect of its total qualitative impression” (Dewey 1934: 150).

Both Csíkszentmihályi and Dewey thus posit an alternation between states of flow and reflection. Goffman, by contrast, believes the two can actually occur in parallel. He argues that a person can be simultaneously active in different channels of activity – observing and reacting to other occurrences while engaged in a concentrated action, and even communicating in a “concealment channel” (1974: 219) [5].

Whether the dominant mode in the active realization of interactive art is an alternating or a parallel manifestation of reflective and immersive moments is ultimately difficult to determine. What matters in this context, and what I have tried to explain through these examples and their analysis via my own observations and visitor interviews, is that aesthetic distance or reflection and immersive experiences of flow are not mutually exclusive in the experience of interactive art, but essential counterparts [6].


1. According to Christiane Paul, the original meaning of virtual reality was “a reality that fully immersed its users in a three-dimensional world generated by a computer and allowed them an interaction with the virtual objects that comprise that world’' (2003: 125).
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2. "[…] eine echte Erfahrung am Werke, die den, der sie macht, nicht unverändert lässt" (Gadamer 160: 95).
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3. "[…] über die Auffassung, die einer Aufführung zugrunde liegt, oder über die Leistung der Darsteller als solche reflektiert" (ibid.:112).
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5. Mark B. N. Hansen reminds us that simultaneity of object awareness and consciousness of one’s own perception is already described in Husserl's theory of double intentionality (cf. 2004: 252).
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6. This paper is part of a larger research project conducted by the author (see Kwastek 2013).
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