By Félix Suazo | March 09, 2022

A few decades ago, the art utopia consisted of incorporating the viewer into the work, either physically or sensorially. Frank Popper called these practices with the term "participation art".


In Rio de Janeiro, Helio Oiticica conceived his parangolés as a vehicle for popular and aesthetic interaction; in Caracas and London Diego Barboza mobilized dozens of people with his poemas de acción, in Valparaíso Manuel Casanueva Carrasco and his students developed playful tournaments of body and space interaction; in Paris Julio Le Parc, García-Rossi, Hugo Demarco, F. Morellet, Denise René, Francisco Sobrino Ochoa, J. Stein and Yvaral, grouped around the Grav (Groupe de Recherche d'Art Visuel), invoked the dynamization of space public with optical, physical and tactile gadgets; while Carlos Cruz-Diez installed his chromosaturation booths in the streets so that passers-by could color themselves. A few stimuli and the presence of several people were enough to trigger a shared experience. So it was about "being together", in the midst of situations aimed at personal and artistic coexistence.


Of course, many other visual creation practices took advantage of this premise, especially Allan Kaprow's mass happenings in the United States, the Fluxus actions in Europe and North America, and the environmental activism and social sculpture campaigns carried out by Joseph Beuys in Germany. . In all these cases the incentive was also "to be together" and to erase the limits between art and life.

Over time, advances in digital technology have led to the appearance of so-called "immersive art", a modality that inherits the scenographic format of video installations but has evolved towards a multisensory experience, defying the boundaries between reality and simulation. through monumental projections, sound and the combination of video mapping techniques, augmented reality, virtual reality and 3D.

The core of the issue is to promote active behavior of the viewer and make him the protagonist of the artistic experience. However, many of the immersive practices often decline towards an exclusively playful approach aimed at entertainment and not the cultivation of aesthetic sensibility, an issue that is especially visible in the immersive recreation of pictorial works where the plastic qualities disappear to be replaced by a virtual faccimil from the original scene. The other issue is that immersive art amplifies the sensory link with the work but weakens the link with the environment.


Two of the most influential thinkers of our time have come to strikingly similar conclusions, though by different routes. For Boris Groys “digital metadata creates an objectless aura”, while for Byung-Chul Han, in the “post-factual information” society, the digital order suppresses distances and replaces objects (including artistic ones) with “non-objects” stuff.

We could say that with immersive art the participation of the public reaches its full potential. And yet, the purpose of "being together" or "doing things together" has drifted into a way of "hallucinating together" in a parallel dimension where everyone is their own alter ego. In this sense, immersion consists of entering a world of "radical otherness" as Jean Baudrillard presciently maintained or of "actants", connected by a digital interface like the one described by Bruno Latour.


Both participatory art and immersive art have as a common premise the activation of the aesthetic experience through the senses. However, they start from different notions of the corporal and the face-to-face. The first supposes the "melee" in space; the second requires technological mediation and virtual contact. In both cases, a world without exteriority and a work without borders are prefigured.


In their Proposal for a place of activation (1963) the GRAV artists proposed a space without "images hanging on the walls, neither actors nor passive spectators, neither teachers nor students, just one or two things and people with time to share". In 2001, almost four decades later, the Japanese immersive experiences collective TeamLaB moved the process of participatory interaction from the physical to the technological, stating that "Digital art has the ability to change the relationships between people who are present within a same space."

There is here an undoubted genealogy where the work is completed with the active presence of the viewer; only that the supports and procedures to achieve such purpose have changed drastically. The link is now less capillary and the coexistence more remote. The time will come when there will no longer be a place for the meeting, nor subjects to interact; just sleepwalking avatars immersed in a world of pure sensations. Then everything will be the same and art will have the undifferentiated "aura" of "non-things".