Low-tech and Participation

This writing is the result of a piece of research I undertook during my MA. I have put it here because it explains the development of my interest in low-tech electronics and methods of production developed.

Introduction and Starting Points

At the beginning of my research I was looking into Interactivity. I began to wonder how useful is this term is when used to describe an art work. I read Lev Manovich’s ‘The Language of New Media’ during my research and found the following quotes useful:

“Once an object is represented in a computer, it automatically becomes interactive. Therefore, to call a computer media “interactive” is meaningless - it simply means stating the most basic fact about computers.”1

“When we use the concept of “Interactive media” exclusively in relation to computer-based media, there is a danger that we will interpret “interaction”, literally, equating it with the physical interaction between a user and a media object (pressing a button, choosing a link, moving the body), at the expense of psychological interaction.”

These quotes summarised what I had begun to think about the use of the term 'interactive'. Firstly that is too broad a term to be truly useful when describing an art work, secondly that it can be interpreted in different ways. The second quote also highlights some of the issues with this term that I found through my research; the term interactive can be applied to non-computer based media. For example when we look at a painting we have a psychological interaction, through our emotional response and interpretation of the work. I discovered that the topic was broader than I had imagined at the beginning of my research.
During my research I visited the ‘Decode’2 exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum since some of the work in the exhibition was described as Interactive.

Dandelion at Decode
On the website for the exhibition, the 'interactive' works are described as having “reciprocal relationships”2 with the viewer. The piece ‘Dandelion’3 by YOKE and SENNEP is included in this category.

Dandelion, by Sennep & Yoke.

The writing about these works implies that the relationship between the viewer and artwork is mutual. In fact, by pointing the hairdryer at the screen and 'blowing' the seeds the viewer is feeding into a system. This information is fed into a programmed system and the results are displayed on the screen. This is not a criticism of the art work itself but of the description of the viewers relationship with the piece. Usman Haque is and Artist and Architect who has worked on Interactive pieces and also written about this field, he writes;

“These days, however, leading practitioners in the field of interactive art do use the word ‘interactive’ in the sense of ‘responsive’. Interactive art and architecture premised on the notion of an artefact doing something solely in the linear-causal response to actions by a person (or environment) is generally structured on preprogrammed cycles of call-and-response between human and machine. Such work invokes a mutually reactive relationship only slightly more sophisticated than that between a person and an automated cash machine.”4

“By obscuring the distinction between interactive and responsive we lose a potentially fertile conceptual framework.” 4

I began to think about why I was questioning the relationship between the viewer and the work. I realised that my perspective on interactivity was affected by my background. As an artist I have worked on participatory arts projects and had previously worked as Youth Worker for three years. This was influencing my perspective on interactivity and I began to think about the links between Interactivity and Participation.

Allan Kaprow

Allan Kaprow was a pioneer in the participatory arts movement. He saw the development of New Media and Interactivity in the art world. He was particularly interested in blurring the boundary between artist and audience or viewer. He organised happenings in which groups of participants would take part, he often used play as a way to engage people. (The image on the slide is of ‘Fluids’ in 1967; a happening in which participants built enclosures out of blocks of ice in Los Angeles and Pasadena, the ice was then left to melt). In the introduction to a book titled ‘The Blurring of Art and Life’, which contains essays, Jeff Kelley describes Kaprow’s perspective on the use of new technologies in art;

Caroline Farris  (Then Mrs. Robert A. Rowan) and Peggy Phelps, 1967

Kaprow approaches new technologies openly, even optimistically at first sensing in their networks and reverberations a new capacity for art to reach out beyond its limitations…..Kaprow ends up backing away from their slick appeal and even criticizing artists’ unimaginative use of them and the ways they preempt actual participation”5

This relates to pieces such as the ‘Dandelion’ at ‘Decode’, which on appearance offer more participation for the viewer than they actually deliver.

Ladder of Participation

As I had realised that my perspective on Interactive art works had been influenced by my work as a Youth Worker, I decided to use a tool from those experiences. ‘The Ladder of Participation’6 is a tool used in youth and community work to evaluate how participatory a project or activity is. The different rungs depict different levels of participation and the amount of power and control that the participants have over the process and outcomes. The more these levels increase the further the project or activity is up the ladder. When applied to an art work the amount of control and power that the audience have over the the piece would be measured against these categories. The more empowered the audience is; the higher up the ladder the work would be. Using this system I would place the ‘Dandelion’ at the rung of “Consulted”. The audience has an input but the result will be the same; the seeds will come off the Dandelion although the audience has some input into the manner that this will happen, but the result of the persons interaction is pre-determined.

In youth work 'barriers to participation' would be discussed, practical or other issues that prevent a project or activity reaching the higher rungs of the ladder. In terms of participation with Interactive art works there are also barriers to participation.

Simon Penny
Simon Penny is an artist and theorist who works with digital technologies and robotics. He raises issues which are relevant to participation, technology and interactivity. In reference to new media and technologies he writes:

“Artists who engage these technologies also simultaneously engage consumer commodity economics. They are induced to upgrade continually. This creates a financial load and a pressure to continually retrain, to learn the newest version of the software. The need to upgrade is not necessarily a product of the artists' esthetic development. Thus they are caught in a cycle of unrequited technological consumption. Artists cannot learn the new technology before it is replaced with another. If art practice requires a wholistic consideration of the cultural context of the subject matter, then the pace of technological change prevents this.”7

Telepanoscope/Vivatars by Simon Penny

Simon Penny identifies an issue for artists making work that uses new technologies. Using new technologies to create works can involve learning new programs as they emerge. This can be very time consuming and in order to use these new technologies in a participatory manner, the audience would need to spend a similar amount of time learning them to be able to participate fully. If an artist is constantly upgrading and using the latest technology this makes work less accessible in terms of interaction and participation. From a personal perspective I often have ideas that would need new and complex technologies in order to realise them and I find it frustratingly slow to learn these. The pace of change in new technologies and the resulting pressure from this is a barrier to participation. From this research and realisation I began to look for technological tools that could potentially be used in participatory ways. This led to looking into artists and architects who use 'low tech' tools, materials and methods of production in their work.

Reconfigurable House

Telepanoscope/Vivatars by Reconfigurable house by Adam Somali-Fischer, Ai Hasegawa, Barbara Jasinowicz, Bengt Sjölén, Gabor Papp, Tamás Szakál and Usman Haque
Adam Somali-Fischer, Ai Hasegawa, Barbara Jasinowicz, Bengt Sjölén, Gabor Papp, Tamás Szakál and Usman Haque

Usman Haque who I have previously referred to, has worked on a number of projects that use 'low-tech' components and technologies to form and realise complex ideas. One example of this is ‘The Reconfigurable House’9, this piece is described on the website as “hacking low-tech architecture”8. Using low-tech sensors and actuators from simple electronic toys and devices Haque and a team of artists and architects have created this installation. The visitors use a simple and visual touch screen, to configure the house. They can control which sensor is linked to which actuator (this can be seen on the video on the website). On the website the piece is described as:

“a critique of ubiquitous computing "smart homes", which are based on the idea that technology should be invisible to prevent DIY.”

“Smart homes actually aren't very smart simply because they are pre-wired according to algorithms and decisions made by designers of the systems, rather than the people who occupy the houses.”8

The key to the visitors having control over the house is a simple interface which allows transparency. In contrast to the ‘Dandelion’ piece in which the barrier to participation is the interface, as the workings are hidden, the viewer can only intervene at one point in the system. The programming is concealed behind the interface. In the ‘Reconfigurable house’ the programming has been made visual and accessible without any need to learn programming or code. The points at which the visitor can intervene are multiple. The visitor may move around the house - triggering different sensors.. They can reconfigure the house using the touch screen to reconfigure the sensors and actuators.

‘Re:orient - migrating architectures’

 re:orient by Anna Baróthy, Balázs Bodó, Attila Bujdosó, Panni Dávidházy, Pierre Földes, Krisztián Kelner, Ida Kiss, Gergely Kovács, Melinda Matúz, Attila Nemes, Anita Pozna ,Gergely Salát, Adam Somlai-Fischer, Barbara Sterk, Tamás Szakál, Samu Szemerey, Zsuzsanna Szvetelszky

Anna Baróthy, Balázs Bodó, Attila Bujdosó, Panni Dávidházy, Pierre Földes, Krisztián Kelner, Ida Kiss, Gergely Kovács, Melinda Matúz, Attila Nemes, Anita Pozna ,Gergely Salát, Adam Somlai-Fischer, Barbara Sterk, Tamás Szakál, Samu Szemerey, Zsuzsanna Szvetelszky

Usman Haque has worked collaboratively with Adam Somlai-Fischer an architect and artist with similar concerns. Adam Somlai-Fischer was part of the team which worked on ‘Re:orient - migrating architecture’9 a project from which the ‘Reconfigurable house’ was developed. The installation was part of the Venice Biennial in 2006. Unlike the ‘Reconfigurable House’ the viewer could not programme any of the work. The pieces making up the installation were predominately responsive however some of the pieces still offered opportunity for participation. One part of the installation I found particularly interesting was the section called 'Cat Bricks' (which have also been used differently in the ‘Reconfigurable House’). Hundreds of responsive cat toys have been used to build a wall. The 'cat bricks' meow as they are touched. Although it can be centrally controlled by an Arduino system, each toy is an individual system that operates independently from one another. This allows the visitors to have control over the sounds; by altering how many cat bricks are triggered. The behaviour of the wall is not predetermined by programming, so control over the behaviour of the piece is given to the visitors. What I particularly like about this piece is the use of very simple technology which still allows for complex patterns to emerge. This is achieved from combinations of simple user interactions (more than one person can use the installation at once).

Low Tech Sensors and Actuators
low tech propositions front page, Adam Somlai-Fischer and Usman Haque

Usman Haque and Adam Somlai-Fischer also collaborated on a research project based at FACT (Foundation for Art and Creative Technology) in Liverpool. The research focused on using low-tech, cheap and accessible materials to build responsive architecture and art works. The results of their research ‘Low Tech Sensors and Actuators’10 includes explanations of how to take apart and use different low cost and low tech electronics that are available to be downloaded for free from the internet. The paper also includes writing about their approach and ethos;

“……To apply such a notion of "openness" to the design of spaces and objects requires two main strategies. The first is that such spaces and objects must somehow be open to all to be interpreted, inhabited, appropriated and redesigned. The second is that the tools for making these interpretations, inhabitations, appropriations and redesigns must be equally open.”10

“…The advantage of working with low tech toys and devices is that very little specialist knowledge is required. It is perfect for a design process where imagination is in abundance but budgets are not” 10

This relates back to the writing by Simon Penny where he discussed the issues of keeping up with constant changes in technology. Haque and Somlai-Fischer have devised a way of working that makes a complex area - “Responsive Architecture” accessible for people with no experience or training in this area. For me their work opens up new ways of working on projects, both in terms of accessibility to technology for me as an artist, but also for working with others on participatory arts projects.

Revisiting the Ladder of Participation

I thought it would be useful to make a comparison between the art works I have researched using the ‘Ladder of Participation’. The ‘Dandelion’ I would put at the level of consulted, as the result of the person’s interaction is pre-determined to a certain extent. Re:orient would be slightly higher up the scale as the visitor could create different combinations of sound using the ‘cat bricks’, which the creators could not pre-determine. However the design and layout had been decided by the artists and architects and there are limited options in terms of participation, so I would interpret the audience for this piece as being between ‘involved’ and ‘participant’. The piece ‘Reconfigurable house’ would be higher up the ladder with the visitors being ‘participants’ and almost ‘ partners’ as they have more control over the piece. The visitors can control how the piece is programmed and can also activate the responses by moving around the installation. To use the methods and ethos described in ‘Low Tech Sensors and Actuators’ as a participatory arts project would reach the highest level ‘helps design the service’ or in this context “Helps design the art work”. This research opens up the field of responsive art and architecture to people with no training in this area. To me it is interesting that low-tech tools and materials can allow for greater participation than using the newest technology available.
This research has opened up an area for further investigation both in research and practice. I am interested to find out more about artists using these methods for participatory purposes. Practically it has also inspired me to use cheap and readily available electronics as solutions for ideas which I originally thought would need to involve complex technology.


1.Manovich, L ‘The Language of New Media’, (see ‘What New Media is Not’), The MIT Press Cambridge, Massachusetts, 2001, p56

2.‘Decode’ at The Victoria and Albert Museum, 8th December 2009 - 11th April 2010.

3.‘Dandelion’ 2006, YOKE and SENNEP

4.Haque, U ‘4d Social Interactive Design Environments’, (see ‘Distinguishing Concepts, Lexicons of Interactive Art and Architecture’), P26

5.Kelley, J (Ed), ‘Essays on the Blurring of Art and Life’, University of California Press, California and London, 1996, p. xiv

6.‘Ladder of Participation’ developed by Roger Hart based on ‘A Ladder of Citizen Participation’ - Sherry R Arnstein, see:

7.Penny, S, ‘Consumer Culture and the Technological Imperative: The Artist in Dataspace’, First published in Critical Issues in Electronic Media, SUNY Press, 1995, see:

8.‘Reconfigurable House’, Usman Haque and Adam Somlai-Fischer, http://house.propositions.org.uk/

9.‘Re:orient Venice’, Re:orient team, see:

10.Haque, U and Somlai-Fischer, A, ‘Low Tech Sensors and Actuators’, FACT, Liverpool, 2005, available for download at:

Further Reading
Bishop,C, (Ed),‘Participation’, The MIT press Cambridge, Massachusettes, 2006

Frazer, J, ‘An Evolutionary Architecture’, Architecture Association, London, 1995

Popper, F, ‘From Technological to Virtual Art’, The MIT press Cambridge, Massachusettes, 2007

Beesley, P, (Introduction from) ‘ Hylozoic Soil’, Riverside Architecture Press, Ontario, 2010


Media Art Net

Usman Haque, Hugh Dubberly and Paul Pangaro
‘What is interaction?, Are there different types?’, ACM Interactions, Jan 2009,

Usman Haque

Adam Somali Fischer

Leo Nuñez ( his work uses simple electronic systems )

Philip Beesley (Responsive Archiecture)

Simon Penny

Low-Tech and Participatory Arts
Playful Invention and Exploration

Scrapyard Challenge
(Johan Brucker-Cohen and Katherine Moriwaki)

High-Low Tech group at MIT
(uses combinations of high and low-tech materials and processes)

Leah Buechely
(Member of the MIT High-Low Tech group, leads workshops using Low-tech sewing and electronics, this website is a tutorial)

John Connolly
(Artist and educator, who has developed his own course often using low-tech materials and processes)