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Philos. Technol.

(2014) 27:267–278
DOI 10.1007/s13347-013-0134-7

Some Ontology of Interactive Art

Dominic Preston

Received: 15 September 2012 / Accepted: 16 September 2013 / Published online: 8 October 2013
# Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2013

Abstract Lopes (2010) offers an account of computer art, which he argues is a new art form.
Part of what makes computer art distinctive, according to Lopes, is its interactivity, a quality
found in few non-computer artworks. Given the rise in prominence of such artworks, most
notably videogames, they are surely worthy of philosophical inquiry. I believe their ontology
and properties are particularly worthy of study, as an understanding of these will prove crucial
to critical understanding and evaluation of the works themselves. Lopes’ account of interactive
art is novel and important, but flawed, and in this essay I will discuss its flaws and suggest a
better account of the properties of interactive art that builds on his work, providing a partial
account of the ontology of interactive art. In Section 1, I discuss Lopes’ definition and ontology
of interactive art; in Section 2, I argue that he only accounts for the properties of displays,
neglecting the properties of interactive artworks themselves. In Section 3, I discuss several
possible solutions for Lopes and why they are inadequate before Section 4 presents my view,
that interactive artworks possess all of the properties of their varying displays because each
possible display is part of the artwork. This is compatible with Lopes’ definition of interactive
art, and so much of his account can be preserved, but with a refined account of the properties of
interactive artworks. What I present is by no means a complete ontological study of interactive
art, but hopefully lays the groundwork for future work on this ontology.

Keywords Aesthetics . Videogames . Computer games . Computer art . Interactive art .

Interactivity . Dominic lopes . Ontology

1.1 Interactive Art

Providing an account of interactivity in art1 is made difficult by the many uses of the
term ‘interactive’. Although the term’s extension within art might be intuitive, there is
no clear principle that guides this intuition. Firstly, it is worth emphasising some cases

See Smuts (2009) for an attempt at providing a general theory of interactivity, and then applying it to art.
D. Preston (*)
University of Cambridge, Cambridge, UK
268 D. Preston

that are not interactive art. Using chapter selection on a DVD player does not make a
film interactive. Walking around a sculpture to view it from multiple angles does not
make the sculpture interactive. Viewing a painting from different distances and
focusing on different parts does not make the painting interactive. The Ambassadors 2
is not interactive, even though the skull only seems to appear as the viewer moves into
the correct position.
One might argue that some of the above cases are interactive, which may be the
case according to a suitably weak account of interactivity. However, if any of these
cases are considered interactive then much, if not all, art will turn out to be
interactive, and so interactivity will not be a useful way to distinguish between
artworks. There may be some sense in which audiences interact with these artworks,
but there are still some artworks that are more fundamentally interactive, that are in
some sense altered by audience interaction. The aim is to find a stronger,
technical account of interactivity that will pick out these artworks and no
others, and serve as a useful device for discussing artworks that have this
apparently distinctive characteristic.
I would argue that this stronger interactivity is perhaps most clearly and intuitively
found in videogames. Modern videogames can take a variety of inputs, such as button
presses, motion control, voice activated controls, and touch screens. Using these
inputs, they allow players control over visual and auditory elements, provide haptic
feedback through controller vibrations, and alter character development and narrative
progression. This is fundamentally different from any of the cases discussed above,
and it is this sort of interactivity that must be captured by our technical definition.
Together with the assumption that some videogames are artworks, there are then
good reasons to take those videogames which are artworks to be paradigmatic
interactive artworks. I will not defend the assumption that some videogames are
artworks here, but it has been convincingly argued for by Lopes (2010), Tavinor
(2009), and Smuts (2005), while Baker (2012) has gone further and argued that they
are an appreciative art kind with distinctive representational capacities. On this basis,
I believe that any suitable account of interactivity in art should include works such as
videogames while ruling out traditional paintings, sculptures, films, and more.
Lopes argues that videogames are a type of computer art:
An item is a computer art work just in case (1) it’s art, 3 (2) it’s run on a
computer, (3) it’s interactive, and (4) it’s interactive because it’s run on a
computer (2010, p.27).
While Lopes argues that videogames are a type of computer art, he also provides
some varied examples of other computer art. Project X 4 is text-based, with each
screen containing a section of verse telling part of a story, and each word a hyperlink
leading to another screen. Each screen contains more hyperlinked words and there are
many different orders in which the screens can be accessed depending on which

Hans Holbein, 1533
At this point, Lopes has not explained what art is, but in the book’s final chapter, he defends a cluster
concept theory—roughly that an artwork must possess several properties that are jointly sufficient, but not
individually necessary, for art status. Such a theory will be a background assumption in the rest of this
Damian Lopes, 1997
Some Ontology of Interactive Art 269

words are clicked when. Boundary Functions5 consists of a raised platform, a camera,
a projector, and a computer. As two or more people step onto the platform, the camera
feeds their locations into the computer’s algorithm, which in turn causes the projector
to project lines between the users. As they move, the camera continues to track them
and the lines adjust, making it impossible for anyone to step outside their boundary.
The main goal of Lopes’ book is to show that ‘computer art’ is an appreciative art
kind, and potentially even a new art form. My arguments do not rely on the truth of this
claim, or even on the art status of computer art, but only that there are some artworks that
are distinctively interactive and possess some aesthetic properties in virtue of their
interactivity. Computer artworks are useful for this discussion, but there are also many
interactive artworks that are not computer based. Many theatre productions rely on
audience interaction for example, and it can be argued that 4’33”6 is a piece of interactive
music. In addition, a precursor to videogames were ‘choose your own adventure’ books
in which the reader is given choices as to how to proceed in the story, and directions to
turn to certain pages in order to continue. Nothing in this paper hinges on computer art,
but only interactive art, of which there are many kinds.

1.2 Interactivity Defined

Lopes’ account of interactivity hinges on what he calls an artwork’s display, a ‘structure

that results from the artist’s creativity and that we apprehend in order to grasp a work’s
meaning and aesthetic qualities,’ (Lopes 2010, p.4). He suggests that the display of a
painting is a coloured two-dimensional surface, that of a dance is a rhythmic sequence of
body movements, and in music, a sequence of sounds. He claims that traditional images,
such as paintings, are mostly physical objects, where the work is identical to the display,
and can only be displayed in one location at a time. By contrast, digital works can be
transmitted without loss or alteration, and each display is an authentic display of the
work, not a reproduction. As a result, the work cannot be said to be identical to any
particular display. Any given display can be altered or destroyed without causing
damage to the work, and more can be created at any time or place.
With this in place, Lopes offers his account of interactivity in art: ‘a work of art is
interactive just in case it prescribes that the actions of its users help generate its display,’
(2010, p.36). Defining interactivity in terms of generating a work’s display justifies ruling
out the problematic cases outlined in Section 1.1. Paintings and statues are not interactive
because while active appreciation may be required, the work’s display is not altered at all by
this process, only the audience’s experience of the work. DVD chapter selection can be ruled
out on the grounds that such interactions are not prescribed by the films being altered.
Watching a film in an alternate order is not a prescribed way of interacting with the work,
and is arguably not even a case where you experience the work as an artwork at all.
Similarly, altering a painting’s display by slashing it with a knife does not make it interactive
since such interaction is not prescribed, and is ‘not an appropriate tactic for appreciating a
painting,’ (Lopes 2010, p.39).
Prescribed display generation is seen in Project X and Boundary Functions. In the former,
if the display is a sequence of sentences, then which sentences appear is determined in part

Scott Snibbe, 1998
John Cage, 1952
270 D. Preston

by which links the user clicks. In the case of the latter, the lines projected onto the floor are
generated by the presence and movements of the users. However, videogames are the best
example of prescribed display generation. The course of a game is determined by the user’s
choices, and so the user’s interactions determine the game’s display. In videogames such as
the Mass Effect7 series, the user is able to select from a variety of missions within each game,
and can complete them in any order that he or she wishes. There is no official or canonical
narrative order to the missions within the games in this series. Rather, the user’s interactions
shape and control the structure of the games’ narratives, and as a result each user’s game
display is uniquely generated, to the point that decisions made in the first game affect the
narrative of the second, and decisions in the second affect the third. Users also have control
over the display at a very precise level: when the character moves, and at what speed; what
the virtual camera angle is; what the character’s appearance is; what the character says to
other characters within the narrative; and more. Users of such videogames have an enormous
amount of control over the display, influencing innumerable aspects of it. It is this sheer
breadth of interaction that makes them fitting examples for discussion of interactive art, and
so I will be drawing upon videogames for most of my examples in this paper. However, due
to the fact that they are so paradigmatic of interactive art, I believe that my conclusions will
apply to most other cases of interactivity. There will of course be further complications in
some specific instances, but dealing with these falls outside of the scope of this paper.
While Lopes’ definition applies primarily to computer art, it is not limited to such
cases. It seems to also account for other interactive artworks from various art forms. For
example, in productions by the theatre company Punchdrunk, the audience wander
freely through a building and are able to strike up conversations with the actors (who
remain in character), altering the course of the performance, which is the play’s display.

2.1 Multiple Displays

The first concern with Lopes’ account of interactive art is an ambiguity between the two
possible senses in which an artwork’s display might vary, namely between cases where a
display varies over time, and cases where a display varies because there are multiple,
varied instances of it. Lopes himself acknowledges this ambiguity, but I believe it
extends further than he considers. He accounts for it by distinguishing between repeat-
able and non-repeatable works of art. Repeatable works are comparable to songs, which
are repeated in various performances. Videogames would count as repeatable works, as
different instances of the game can be experienced by many people at the same time, and
the same person can revisit the game. Lopes explains that ‘each visit repeats the work,
whose display varies from one visit to the next… display variation comes through
repetition,’ (2010, p.37). By contrast, some interactive artworks are not repeatable. For
example, Telegarden8 consists of a small garden tended by a robotic arm, the arm itself
controlled by user input from many different users across the world. The artwork ‘was the
site of a single event, the tending of a garden,’ and Lopes argues that ‘for works like this,

BioWare, 2007–12
Ken Goldberg, 1995–2004
Some Ontology of Interactive Art 271

display variation doesn’t come through repeating multiple versions. It comes instead
through variation in the succession of states that make up the one event,’ (2010, p.38).
This explanation fails to address the ambiguity however. The case of non-repeatable
artworks is clear, with a single display whose properties vary over time thanks to user
action. It is not clear what the case is for repeatable artworks, however. Lopes’ wording
could simply mean that there is one display whose properties change every time
someone accesses it. This would seem to be no different from the non-repeatable case,
however, so this cannot be what Lopes means. The emphasis on repeatability and the
multiple displays of digital art might instead suggest that for repeatable interactive
artworks each visit creates a new display. Assuming that this is what he meant still
leaves uncertainty, however, as he does not address the question of whether the
properties of each display vary over time thanks to user action or not. That is, it is not
clear whether each time I play Mass Effect I am creating and altering a display as I play
the game, or whether the variation simply consists in experiencing a different display
each time I play it. If the latter, then Mass Effect does not really seem interactive at all—it
is no different to a song whose many performances are each different displays. On the
other hand, if each display is altered by user action then the game has the same display
variation as non-repeatable artworks such as Telegarden. The only difference is that
Telegarden has a single varying display while Mass Effect has several.
This ambiguity between two types of display variation contributes to a separate
ambiguity regarding multiple displays of the same artwork. Discussing different
displays could mean two or more displays with different structural or aesthetic
properties—e.g., one in which a certain character dies, one in which the same
character survives—or it could simply mean displays in different locations, which
could have different properties, or could be identical except for their location. This
ambiguity is problematic because Lopes never introduces terminology to discuss
different displays in terms of their structural or aesthetic differences. That is, if a
particular display possesses a set of structural and aesthetic properties F, Lopes
introduces no way to discuss F, or the displays that are F.
This leads to his using the term ‘displays’ in differing ways, equivocating two
distinct meanings of the term. For example, he suggests that ‘an item is a work with
multiple displays when and only when our appreciation of it is implicated in our
appreciation of its displays as belonging among its other displays,’ (2010, p.59). Here,
he is discussing multiple displays that possess different properties and whether or not
they could be considered artworks themselves. This quotation is in sharp contrast to his
initial claims that an artwork such as a digital photograph can have many displays that
possess exactly the same properties. What Lopes is trying to discuss in the quoted
section is not works with multiple displays, but works with multiple differing displays,
but he lacks the terminology, causing confusion, and leading to equivocation of two
meanings between these two uses of the term ‘display’.
For clarity’s sake, I suggest that for any given artwork, each possible set of structural
and aesthetic properties F is a display type of that artwork. Digital photographs can have
multiple displays, but only a single display type, barring differences in brightness and
resolution settings on the computer screens. In contrast, interactive artworks are able to
have multiple display types over one display as that display’s properties are altered in the
case of non-repeatable works such as Telegarden; or multiple display types over multiple
displays in the case of repeatable works such as videogames or Project X.
272 D. Preston

2.2 The Properties of Interactive Artworks

With these ambiguities out of the way, I turn to expand one central aspect of Lopes’
account of the ontology of interactive artworks. While Lopes goes to some lengths to
lay out the properties possessed by displays, it is less clear what properties the
artworks themselves bear. It is clear from Lopes’ account that in non-interactive
cases displays bear many of the properties that artworks do. After all, in the case of
paintings Lopes claimed that the display is identical to the artwork. If this is the case,
displays must be capable of possessing many structural and aesthetic properties, from
shape, colour, and narrative through to beauty or ugliness. The same seems to be true
of displays of interactive art. Displays of interactive art possess structure, narrative,
visual features, audio features, and more, depending on the artwork that they are
displays of. A display of Mass Effect, for example, could be watched as an animated
film, as it would bear all the properties that we typically take films to bear.
Given that the displays of interactive artworks bear so many of these properties, it is
not clear what properties the artworks themselves bear. They cannot straightforwardly
bear all the properties that their displays do. After all, there will be many properties each
display has that are incompatible with the properties of another display. One display
might be tragic, while another is not tragic at all. Alternatively, perhaps in one display a
certain character might die, while in another the same character survives. These are both
clearly cases of incompatibility, as the artwork cannot both be tragic and not be tragic at
all; and cannot have the structural property of a certain character both dying and not
dying. Since Lopes does not offer an explicit account of the properties of artworks, I will
consider several possible accounts and why they won’t solve the problem.

3.1 A Single Set of Properties?

If the artwork does not possess all the properties of its displays then one alternative is
that the artwork has one specific set of properties, one display type by my terminol-
ogy, and that all the displays diverge from this to varying degrees. Lopes might hold
such a view, since he suggests that Schonenberg’s 1949 Piano Concerto ‘is clear and
logical,’ but that ‘the aesthetic features of [it] and the performances don’t always
match,’ (2010, p.57). This sort of view may apply in the case of some musical works
and their performances,9 but seems less applicable to cases of interactive art because
the relation between displays and artworks is different in such cases. For applicable
musical works, the artworks are templates for performances, and performances are
made with realising that template as part of the goal. To be a template, the work must
have a clear set of properties that the performances can either possess or differ from.
This is not the same in the case of interactive works. Mass Effect is not a template for
its displays, and there is no canonical or official display type. Rather, it generates

But not all—it is not necessarily applicable in cases of improvisation, for example, which share a great
deal in common with interactive art, as Lopes (2001) points out in a discussion of Young and Matheson
(2000); Tavinor (2011) makes a similar point.
Some Ontology of Interactive Art 273

displays from user input and its own rules. Displays of an interactive artwork cannot
be more or less accurate displays in the way that musical displays can be more or less
accurate performances of a musical work. As a result, this account fails to explain the
properties of interactive artworks.

3.2 Shared Properties

Another account that Lopes might defend is that the artwork possesses only those
properties shared in common by all the displays. While he does not discuss this
directly, there is reason to believe that he might adopt this position, such as his
discussion of musical works, in which he adopts Stephen Davies’ 10 terminology,
holding that musical works can be thicker or thinner, where thicker works specify
more of the features and properties of performances. Lopes does not suggest that
works only possess the properties they specify of their performances, but it might
seem a promising approach to defend his account. There are two immediate problems
for interactive art on this account. Firstly, some interactive artworks will have
displays that have very few properties in common. This would in turn mean a very
thin artwork with very few properties, potentially so few that aesthetic appreciation of
it might seem impossible. This relates to the second issue: interactive artworks would
be appreciable only by virtue of their non-interactive parts. The more interactive an
artwork is, the fewer properties it would have to appreciate. Lopes is clear that he
believes that interactive art can have aesthetic value in virtue of its interactivity.
However, this account holds that the only properties that interactive artworks possess
are those that cannot be affected by the user because they must be held by every
display of the work. Displays would still possess properties resulting from interac-
tivity, but it is likely that Lopes would want artworks themselves to possess aesthetic
properties in virtue of their interactivity.11 If there are some aesthetic properties that
artworks can possess in virtue of their interactivity, then our ontology must account
for them, whatever their exact nature is.
As my arguments in the last two sections have shown, all of the accounts that
might follow directly from Lopes’ work fail to explain the properties of interactive
artworks. However, this does not necessarily mean that an ontology that supports his
account of interactive art cannot be found at all.

3.3 The Importance of Interactivity

One problem with the previous suggestion is that it fails to account for the importance
of interactivity. This objection lies at the root of a promising possible account of
interactive artworks: that they possess properties that arise from interactivity that their
displays do not. It should be possible to specify that these are the crucial properties possessed
by the interactive artwork, and it is these that set the artwork apart from the displays, and
explain appreciation of the artwork itself, distinct from appreciation of its displays.
This relies on the assumption that the properties that arise from interactivity are
exclusive to the artwork, and are not possessed by its displays. If the displays possess

See Davies (2001).
I discuss the nature of such properties in Section 3.3.
274 D. Preston

these properties as well, then the problem is no different to that encountered initially.
It is possible from experience of a single display of an interactive artwork to
appreciate its interactivity, that there were other options, and to feel responsibility
for the choices made. Any interactive artwork that makes the user aware of the
interaction will have this effect. 12 If there are properties that arise from interaction,
it is plausible that in some cases they should all be able to be experienced from a
single display. If they can be experienced from a single display then it is hard to
justify claiming that they are properties of the artwork above and beyond its displays,
rather than simply properties of that display.
However, perhaps an artwork can possess some properties that cannot be experi-
enced from any single display. By comparison, a non-interactive artwork might have
some ugly parts, and some beautiful parts, but still be beautiful overall. This overall
property of beauty results from the way that the parts fit together and relate to each
other. There may analogously be cases where a property possessed by an interactive
artwork is not possessed by any of its display types. For example, in the videogame
The Walking Dead 13, there are sequences in which characters are placed in mortal
peril, and the player is presented with several possible ways to save them, from which
to select one. If the player makes a choice that results in the character’s death, the
resulting display type might be tragic. However, there are some sequences in the
game in which a character’s death is unavoidable—despite the player being given a
variety of options, each choice will ultimately lead to the character’s death. If the
player were to replay the game several times, attempting each option in turn, only to
discover that every option results in the character’s death, the artwork would take on a
new significance. It would still be tragic, but in a different way to the individual
displays. Each display experienced on its own would provoke a sense of regret and of
a missed opportunity. However, The Walking Dead as a whole would possess a
fatalistic sort of tragedy—expressing the idea that some deaths are inevitable and
unavoidable. The artwork can possess properties and express ideas and emotions that
none of its individual displays do.
There is a fundamental problem with the sort of solution outlined in this section
that the considerations above do nothing to alleviate. Even if there are properties that
the artwork possesses but the displays do not, this would not solve the problems
concerning the properties that the displays possess that do not arise from interactivity,
and would not answer the questions about whether or not the artworks possess these
properties. The fact that there are some properties possessed by the artwork and not
its displays does nothing to resolve the issues regarding what other properties the
artwork might or might not possess.
It might be suggested that this section provides a defence against my objections in
Section 3.2, that the properties shared in common by every display would not include
any properties resulting from interactivity. Perhaps there being some properties
resulting from interactivity in displays will solve this problem. However, this would
only be true on the assumption that such properties were among those shared in
common by all of the displays. Once again, there could be an artwork that diverged so

Frome (2009) argues that such awareness is necessary for interactive art, and that interaction must be
voluntary, though I do not wish to commit myself to this view.
Telltale Games, 2012
Some Ontology of Interactive Art 275

greatly that the only such properties held in common would be those resulting from
the very first interaction made, leaving many interactions seemingly irrelevant to the
aesthetic properties of the artwork itself. This would also fail to account for the
properties mentioned in this section that are not found within displays as well.

3.4 Dispositional Properties

Another plausible possibility is that artworks possess potential properties correspond-

ing to all of the properties possessed by their displays. This is not saying that artworks
potentially possess all of their displays’ properties, but that they possess properties
such as being ‘potentially tragic’. These are dispositional properties, such that a game
might have a disposition to be tragic should the player make certain interactions. This
recognises that every property of the displays should have some connection to the
artwork, but does not leave the artwork with a collection of incompatible and
contradictory properties.
The flaw in this account is that it wrongly entails that interactive artworks have
dispositions to wholly be each display type. By comparison, if a glass is fragile, that
means it has a disposition to shatter when force is applied to it. When said force is
applied, the glass as a whole shatters. However, this is not analogous to the case of
interactive art. When I play Mass Effect and make certain interactions that lead to a
tragic outcome, I have not made the artwork as a whole tragic, but only my display.
After all, the artwork is still there for someone else to use, resulting in a display that is
not tragic. This account suggests that the artwork’s properties can vary with user
interaction, but this does nothing to avoid the central problem, that different displays
and display types of the same artwork each have different properties. What is needed
is an account that explains how multiple displays can have entirely different proper-
ties simultaneously, while all still displaying the same artwork, and the potential
properties account fails to explain this.

4.1 Display Types as Parts

I believe there is a simpler solution to Lopes’ problems: each display type is part of
the artwork. 14 In the case of paintings, photographs, and films, there is only one
display type, the artwork itself. In the case of interactive art, each display type is part
of the artwork. The artwork as a whole is composed of all the display types, some of
which are displayed, some of which perhaps never are. As a result, interactive artworks
possess all of the properties that their displays possess. This is loosely analogous to a ball
that is half red, and half white. There is no incompatibility, because the different colours
are in different parts of the ball, and the ball possesses the properties of both redness and
whiteness even though it is not entirely either colour.

I am using ‘part’ in a mereological sense, i.e. with no ontological restrictions, to avoid any implication of
all artworks having to be physical objects.
276 D. Preston

This account also matches up well to both intuitions and natural language. It
accommodates the intuition that in the case of artworks with multiple varied displays
experiencing more than one display allows increased knowledge of the artwork itself.
Since each display type is a single part of the artwork, experiencing multiple parts
entails experiencing more of the artwork, allowing more knowledge of it. I might play
through the Mass Effect series once as a soldier making morally righteous decisions. I
would be aware that there are other ways to play the games, and thus more of the
artworks that I have not experienced, but I would not know the details of these
aspects until I play the games a second time making different decisions. Each display
grants me more experience of Mass Effect as a whole, because each time I play the
games I only experience part of the work. My account also matches the intuition that
we appreciate multiple displays of an interactive artwork with reference to each other
and the artwork as a whole. If each display type is a part, then each can be compared
to other parts, and the knowledge that a different part could have been displayed
instead can inform the appreciation and understanding of the artwork as one that has
more than one possible display. Finally, this account also accommodates properties
possessed by the artwork that are not possessed by any of its displays, as discussed in
Section 3.3. Such properties depend on the structure and arrangement of the artwork’s
parts and belong to the artwork as a whole.
One immediate reservation might be that on my account it is unlikely that anyone
could come to experience the entirety of a given interactive artwork, and that this
poses a challenge for attributing aesthetic value to said work. Is it possible to
determine the value of a work that you have experienced only a fraction of? This is
a legitimate and pressing concern for my view, but I believe there is a response
available to me. Firstly, it is clear of course that one can evaluate the specific display
experienced, and attribute some value to the work based on its ability to generate such
a display. More importantly however, in experiencing an interactive artwork one can
get some sense of the other unexperienced possibilities available. As I play The
Walking Dead I can appreciate not only my display, but also some of the points at
which I might have acted otherwise and generated an importantly different
display. This may not allow a total understanding of the work, but it does
allow enough for some attribution of aesthetic value, an attribution that can be
refined upon further interactions.
With this ontology in place, it is worth revisiting Lopes’ claim that ‘a work of art is
interactive just in case it prescribes that the actions of its users help generate its display,’
(2010, p.36) in order to see if it still applies. My account is largely compatible with this
definition. The actions of users generate displays by selecting which parts of the artwork
are displayed and which are not. This rules out traditional films, paintings, and sculp-
tures as interactive art because they have only one display type, and so the audience has
no impact on what is displayed. This account still does the work that Lopes wants it to
do, and still captures our intuitions and language usage, while accounting for why
displays should not be considered artworks themselves.

4.2 Types and Tokens

I have spent this paper discussing the question of what properties interactive artworks
and their displays might have. I have not considered in as much detail the related
Some Ontology of Interactive Art 277

question of the nature of the relation between artworks and their displays. However
my conclusion that artworks possess all of the properties of all their displays, because
those displays are parts of the artwork, does of course have implications for this
related question. More to the point, it offers an answer: display types are parts of
artworks. This stands in apparent contrast to the position held by Lopes (2001) and
Tavinor (2011) that displays are tokens of artwork types. Both adopt this position on
the grounds that it is taken as standard for many other art forms, crucially including
the account of Carroll (1998) of mass art. Both consider the problem posed by the
variation between displays—how can two tokens of the same type be radically
different in structural and aesthetic properties?—and both argue that jazz and other
improvised music face the same problem, and that it is soluble. The solution is that
what is tokened is not a whole set of structural, properties, but rather the crucial
properties and compositional guidelines that determine whether or not a given jazz
performance counts as an instance of a particular jazz standard. In the case of
computer art, Tavinor and Lopes both argue that individual displays are instances
of algorithms that determine the representational possibilities of the artwork.
Lopes and Tavinor both present a convincing case, and so it might seem to be a
problem for my view that it leaves me in opposition to them. Thankfully, I believe that
our views need not be so far apart. After all, on my account individual displays do token
a type—but that type is the relevant display type, and not the artwork itself. Since the
display type is a part of the artwork, that means that displays of interactive works token
parts of artworks rather than the entire works. This is not so radical a departure after all. I
can even agree that artworks are grounded in algorithms that determine displays, I only
add that every display type should be taken as a part of the artwork, so that the artwork
consists of all of its display types together with the relevant algorithm. Of course, the
algorithm is specific to computer art—no such algorithm grounds interactive theatrical
performances. However, there will be some set of guidelines or rules that determine
what is to count as a performance or instance of such works, and this can play the same
grounding role as the algorithm does for computer art. The strength of my position is that
it recognises the ontological structure in common to all interactive artworks, whether
they are run on an algorithm or not.

5 Conclusion

The best way to account for the properties of interactive artworks is for their display
types to be parts of them, parts which are in turn displayed. In this way, the artworks
possess all of the important aesthetic properties, and the initially vague relation
between displays and artworks is made clear. This ontological account seems incon-
sistent with Lopes’ few words on ontology, including his view that displays are
tokens of artwork types. However, I have shown that my view is compatible with his
initial definition of interactive art, and that our disagreements on ontology are not as
great as they may first appear. What I have offered is a partial ontological account of
interactive art that leaves room for further work to build upon it. My conclusion has at
least one important implication for the further study of interactive art: proper critical
evaluation will often require repeat interactions with the work, without which a full
understanding may prove impossible.
278 D. Preston


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