Opinion
June 13, 2021

Engaging Audiences

Majeda Alhinai

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Art doesn’t live in a vacuum: artists gain an audience through the public release of their work. The type of audience you gain is not exclusively determined by your work’s genre, aesthetics, and subject. The musician Frank Ocean has created a loyal fan base through his elegant and elusive music, but also through mystery and disengagement: he notoriously stokes fan anticipation for his next release. While this scarcity strategy has worked for him, it may not always succeed in the realm of visual art. A musician’s fanbase can replay previous tracks to tide them over. A visual artist’s presence is tethered to the public display of her work. An artist who goes on hiatus is likely forgotten.

It can be discouraging for an artist to release work that garners lackluster public response. Conversely, it is incredibly rewarding and validating to see your audience react and interact with the work. Today’s post-contemporary art scene depends on social media to act as the window to an artist’s world. For many, if you’re not playing the (social media) game, you’re irrelevant. Social media is an artist-audience interaction lifeline.

As a designer and artist who enjoys working at the intersection of art and technology, I believe it’s important to see how and where your work stands within a public setting. Where does the artist-audience relationship stand today as technology and digital tools proliferate? At what point does the viewer (audience) become a ‘reader’? Close reading of a piece of art happens when the audience has something to offer back to the art or the artist. This may be through physically interactive devices, or by allowing viewers themselves to become part of the spectacle. Artists can relinquish control over their work, opening up a mutually beneficial feedback process in which artist and viewer both contribute to the work.

My own practice creates a viewer-driven public experience, sometimes achieved through Augmented Reality. In a recent exhibition of my series titled Collectibles, technology destabilised art. As part of the Collectibles exhibition experience, I released an AR piece as a pseudo souvenir for the visitors to the gallery. They accessed a digital figurine by scanning the QR code provided on a pocket sized card, collected as a token of their gallery visit. In accessing the figurine, the audience transported, scaled and manipulated its sitelessness, as the work was freed from the constraints of a single physical location. The virtual aspect of the work allowed the viewer to engage with it as public art, with full control over its display and photographic reproduction. The viewer gains some authorship over the digital staging and placement of the AR Collectible.

In this case, audience contribution resulted in the photography of the virtual sculptures next to large-scale architecture, as well as near smaller scale interior objects. (Images 1 and 2) Engagement seems to stem from people’s desire to be in control. Assuming viewers are excited by their ability to ‘stage’ the artwork, they are challenged to view the sculpture through their own lens, literally and figuratively. Feedback from ‘users’ was largely technical: my desire to create a more detailed and seamless AR-generated visual led me to improve dimensions like light, image mapping, and materiality.

Image 01, Collectibles AR sculpture, Majeda Alhinai (BC), 2020

Image 02 Collectibles AR sculpture, Majeda Alhinai (BC), 2020

Interactive artwork also creates a feedback process between artist and viewer. To a certain extent, the immediate responsiveness the viewer gains from a piece of work determines how interested they will be in the interaction. Technology ‘shrinks’ time, enabling active interaction. For example, teamLab (Image 3) prominently merge art and science, creating rich mediascapes that are consistently interactive. This may be through sound, touch or movement, but also by literally scanning viewer-created drawings into their animated projections. By allowing the audience to become a part of the work, they are able to engage adults and children, artists and non-artists. In this case, you don’t need a phone or an app to interact with the work, just your body and a willingness to participate.

Image 03, Sketch Town, teamLab, 2014. Photo by: teamLab

Sometimes engagement can be more nuanced, less literal. In a piece titled Deep Surface (Images 4 and 5), I created a tileable wall sculpture layered with dense ornamentation, both in its sculptural form and graphic image mapping. A video rendering of Deep Surface as imagined on site, alongside the physical wall sculpture, elicited conversations on materiality, site, and ‘real world’ implications of public art in subway tunnels.

Image 04, Deep Surface, Majeda Alhinai, 2016

Image 05, Deep Surface, Majeda Alhinai, 2016

This experience later prompted a personal project titled Unclaimed (Image 6)—public art that engages with the city in the digital space, using CGI while locating sculptural objects within the urban fabric. This is possible through manipulation of the built environment, as well as digital placement of sculptures on a chosen location. I conceived the project as a method of experimenting and engaging, through social media, with anyone willing to entertain the idea of public art in unclaimed spaces (in Muscat, Oman). Some people responded, “What’s the point?” Personally, on hearing this remark, I believe I’ve made it as an artist. But joking aside, such criticism and judgment are both forms of engagement. The viewer questioning the work’s point prompts either a verbal response from the artist (rarely), or a response through the evolution of the work itself. As this is an ongoing project, I am constantly inspired by the advancement of technical tools like 3D modeling and rendering softwares, as well as virtual and Augmented Reality tools, and their ability to give life to unbuilt work. The project evolves with the technical advancement as well as social interaction that in turn feed back into the work.

Image 06, Unclaimed, Majeda Alhinai, 2019

With Unclaimed, the audience exists solely online through social media engagement, as the work is unbuilt (for now). This has some advantages as I am able to reach an audience that might never visit the physical location. Yet, this engagement is limited, as a materialised structure enables an audience to physically interact with it. There is no way to gauge user experience of unbuilt work. Augmented Reality is getting us close, but still it is a separate product that cannot replace the built environment.

Bottom line: there is no rule book for how an artist should properly engage with the viewer. As artists, it is up to us to keep our audience engaged without ‘selling out.’ Early on, I learnt to not fall into trends for the sake of staying current, especially if the trend is irrelevant to my body of work. Not all trends are bad, but adhering to a trendy method of engagement just because you want your work to ‘sell’ isn’t the right move. It is more important that the work has the ability to live beyond trends, and you can achieve this by cultivating an audience that is more interested in the personality and distinctiveness of your work, than the availability of a certain ‘product.’

Majeda Alhinai is an artist, educator and co-founder of the design collaborative Brash Collective.

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