Christa Sommerer & Laurent Mignonneau's interactive artworks come alive at OK Linz

The Artwork as a Living System, co-produced by ZKM | Karlsruhe, OÖ Landes-Kultur GmbH, Linz and iMal, presents decades of collaboration that pioneered interactivity within art.

by Jones JohnPublished on : Oct 26, 2022

As the word Anthropocene progressively gains currency within the context of human interactions with more than human ecologies, strategies for developing interspecies kinship have been touted as being necessary to sensitise humanity to its environment. Christa Sommerer and Laurent Mignonneau's artworks and their allusion to life and its mechanisms, seen and unseen, provoke empathy for their living interfaces that is metered by graphic nature of their responses. Interactive artworks like Interactive Plant Growing (1992), which was the first work the two artists collaborated on, and Eau De Jardin (2004) embody this potential. Both works prompt their audiences to recognise the role of the exhibited flora in visually translating changes in their environment, and in doing so bring attention to sensitivities that may be overlooked by human cognition.

People on the Fly, 2016, Media facade installation, Christa Sommerer & Laurent Mignonneau.| The Artwork as Living System | Christa Sommerer & Laurent Mignonneau| STIRworld
People on the Fly, 2016, Media facade installation Image: Michael Maritsch; Courtesy of OÖ Landes-Kultur GmbH, Linz

All of Sommerer and Mignonneau’s artworks escape being vignetted, forever predicating their interactivity formally with a dynamism that is divergently reminiscent of living systems. As the beings that inhabit or twine with their interfaces express themselves, in what can subjectively range from emphatic proclamations to subtle demands depending on interpretation, their audiences become aware of their individual influences within these ephemeral ecosystems. Locating the viewer within the synergies, or a lack thereof, active in their interactions with the natural world appear to be pivotal in the duo’s practice. According to Sommerer, “Through our interactive artworks we try to show that we humans are part of a large and intricate ecosystem. Any interaction we do in the real world has an effect on others and on the environment. Even small individual decisions can lead to big changes, when they are coming from a large group. We all know about swarm behaviour. But we also know that we are just one living entity and that we have the responsibility to care about our environment, the plants and the insects. This beautiful and intricate relationship to nature, is one of our main topics in creating interactive art. We want the audience to corporally feel this relationship by interacting with the artificial natures (insects, plants) within our works.”

HAZE Express, 1999, Interactive installation, Christa Sommerer & Laurent Mignonneau.| The Artwork as Living System | Christa Sommerer & Laurent Mignonneau| STIRworld
Haze Express, 1999, Interactive installation Image: Michael Maritsch; Courtesy of OÖ Landes-Kultur GmbH, Linz

The nature and characteristics of some beings within their works have been influenced by the use of genetic algorithms, in the first instance with A-Volve in 1994. This was influenced by their time at ATR Advanced Telecommunications Research Institute in Tokyo where they were in the proximity of researchers such as Tom Ray and Katsunori Shimohara, who were making strides in the field of artificial life at the time. The possibility of creating forms of life, autonomous and reproducing beyond the immediate scope of their programming, inspired the two new media artists. “Genetic algorithms are fascinating for us, as they allow to create forms and creatures that would not be possible otherwise. Through cross-over and mutation one can generate artificial creatures that escape human design and paired with human interaction, new and open-ended evolutionary systems can be created.”

A-Volve, 1994, Interactive installation, Christa Sommerer & Laurent Mignonneau.| The Artwork as Living System | Christa Sommerer & Laurent Mignonneau| STIRworld
A-Volve, 1994, interactive installation Image: Michael Maritsch; Courtesy of OÖ Landes-Kultur GmbH, Linz

The Interactive Plant Growing is especially significant in the history of interactive artworks, being the first work of installation art to employ living plants, including a sword fern, a common ivy, a dwarf Japanese juniper, a Himalayan juniper and a golden barrel cactus, as media. This penchant for developing innovative interfaces has spread across their oeuvre, sometimes due to an unavailability of devices that could enable aspects of their artistic vision. “When we started in the early 1990s there was, besides keyboard mouse and joy sticks, very little interfaces available. Since we had this idea of natural interaction, we began to invent interfaces by ourselves… Later we invented many more interfaces, from camera tracking interfaces (for A-Volve) to light detection interfaces (for Phototropy) to multi-user touch screens (for Haze Express) and media archaeological interfaces (for Life Writer), to name a few.”

Life Writer, 2006, Interactive installation, Christa Sommerer & Laurent Mignonneau.| The Artwork as Living System | Christa Sommerer & Laurent Mignonneau| STIRworld
Life Writer, 2006, interactive installation Image: Michael Maritsch; Courtesy of OÖ Landes-Kultur GmbH, Linz

According to Sommerer, the best strategy for maintaining the life of new media art is frequent display, and the inclusion of several of their artworks at the ZKM | Zentrum für Kunst und Technology in Karlsruhe has preserved their vitality. But for some works, certain interventions are necessary for their continued art exhibition. “Laurent Mignonneau has made a significant effort over the past two years to restore and re-activate older works from the early 1990s and more recent works. Several of our classical works such as Interactive Plant Growing have been shown frequently in the past 30 years, so the program was quite up to date. Other works such as Haze Express have not been shown since 2000, so it was necessary to recreate it from scratch. However, all the software is still the same, Laurent spent many hours to port the C and C++ code to new recent computers, and also to recreate the hardware interfaces when necessary. Overall, our concept was to show the works exactly as they were, and not change the graphics or the interaction modalities.”

Christa Sommerer & Laurent Mignonneau with Mobile Feelings (2002-2003).| The Artwork as Living System | Christa Sommerer & Laurent Mignonneau| STIRworld
Christa Sommerer & Laurent Mignonneau with Mobile Feelings (2002-2003) Image: Michael Maritsch; Courtesy of OÖ Landes-Kultur GmbH, Linz

This interactive experience exhibition series is accompanied by a publication titled Christa Sommerer & Laurent Mignonneau: The Artwork as a Living System, edited by Karin Ohlenschläger, Peter Weibel, and Alfred Weidinger for the Leonardo Book Series in collaboration with MIT Press.

Christa Sommerer & Laurent Mignonneau at ZKM | Karlsruhe (TBC) Video: Courtesy of ZKM, Center for Art and Media Karlsruhe

The Artwork as a Living System is on display at OK Linz until February 26, 2023.

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