Connecting with Observers, Connecting with Self: Symbolic Interactionism and Installation Art
International Conference on Arts, Performing Arts, Architecture and Design Albena, Bulgaria 2014
Thomas Houser and Jain Kwon
Abstract: This paper presents findings related to symbolic interactionism in the development and interpretation of art installations. It stems from three projects created by the first author: Attrition, Contrition and Babel Amidst an Arising. This paper looks at symbolic interactionism as a proactive tool used by the artist first to engage the observer; second to construct an environment that communicates through shared meanings and societal experiences; and third to shape future decisions made by the observers.
Initially inspired by glass resurfacing in a landfill near the Murano Glassworks in Venice, the installations grapple with questions surrounding decisions we make each day related to our fate and that of our planet. Intermingled religious symbols and references are used throughout all three installations. In Attrition Koranic names for Allah adorn forms rising from a symbolic landfill to a mandala-like canopy emblazoned with Old Testament names for God. Visual references are made to the rainbow, sign of the God’s covenant with Man. In Contrition, ex voto figures rise from a symbolic landfill bearing images of personal loss. In Babel Amidst an Arising a cacophony of multi-lingual voices and discordant ambient sounds rise from seemingly tranquil video images.
This paper also explores the use of symbolic interactionism theory as a tool to address the development and interpretation of design concepts. In early design studios it was noted that students often found it difficult to uncover and understand design inspirations; so the second author constructed exercises to help them explore underlying meanings in art, specifically in two of the installations being considered here: Attrition and Contrition. Their interpretations of these installations were discussed from a perspective of symbolic interactionism, specifically in light of the societal issues addressed. Subsequently, students reported an increased awareness of underlying meanings. They became more aware of the effects of symbolic interactionism in their lives. Significantly, the artist also is an observer; so the cyclical nature of symbolic interactionism is duly noted here.
Keywords: Symbolic Interactionism, Installations, Art & Society, Art and Public Space Section: Contemporary Art
Blumer identified three basic premises upon which symbolic interactionism is built: first, people act toward things based on the meanings things have for them; second, meaning arises from social interaction with others; and third, meanings are handled through and modified by an interpretive process . Both Blumer and Goffman have noted further that symbolic interactionism explains the way individuals establish meanings through interactions with other entities, or objects, in social contexts . Blumer’s notion of symbolic interaction emphasizes meaning of physical environment and the interaction with people .
Charon summarizes the nature of perspectives with the following points.
Perspectives are points of view … that guide our perceptions of reality.
Perspectives can … be described as … a set of assumptions, values and beliefs used to organize our perceptions and control our behavior.
…. Each perspective is created in an individual’s social life. Each changes as the individual’s groups and roles change.
No object can simply be understood from one perspective. Many perspectives can be used to see the same object and each might tell us something important about the object.
It is important to understand which perspective we use for understanding. Some … will help … and others might actually stand in the way .
Further, he notes that
People who interact with one another form a society. They take one another into account; they communicate, role take and cooperate. They share an understanding of reality and they develop a set of rules to live by. At the same time, the development of society through cooperative symbolic interaction will, by its very nature, cut off interaction with those outside that interaction. This is the basis for the racial problems in this society [the United States] and it is the basis for similar problems in all societies .
Finally, he points out that “we can understand social problems such as racism and racial conflict through focusing on interaction, cooperation, communication, culture and definition…. ”
While discussing interaction with aesthetic objects, Denzin notes “When a work of art enters an individual’s or a group’s field of experience, it is confronted by a preexisting set of cultural, personal and political meanings. These meanings are woven into the individual or the group’s taken-for-granted understandings of the world.” They in turn transform the aesthetic object into an experience that passes through three stages: assessment and interpretation; definition of how the object relates to the group; and interaction with the object-as-an experience. The aesthetic object thus becomes a part of the group’s collective experience .
While discussing architecture in light of the theory of symbolic interactionism, Smith noted that the designed physical environment and the self potentially influence and find expression in each other. He remarked that the theory reveals “how these physical environments contain and communicate shared symbols and meanings.” Further, he posited that “… the theory reveals that this designed physical environment is not merely a backdrop for our behavior. Quite the contrary, because some designed physical buildings, places and objects act as agents to shape our thoughts and actions; they invite self-reflection .” The authors of this paper suggest these same postulations apply to art installations, as well as to architecture.
The Art Installations
Thomas Houser created the three installations under consideration here. They have as a common base a photo he took in a landfill near the Murano Glassworks in Venice, Italy. Everywhere brilliant glass shards were resurfacing in a sort of tango with rapidly-growing ground cover meant to hold the fragments down. To the artist the scene was reminiscent of rising bones in the Old Testament book of Ezekiel. The subsequent installations grapple with questions surrounding decisions we make each day related to our fate and that of our planet. Intermingled religious symbols are used throughout.
Attrition was a 1400 square foot (130 square meter) site-specific installation in Gallery 101, Lamar Dodd School of Art, the University of Georgia, Athens, Georgia, USA, August 2012 (see figure 1). Major installation components were a backlit overhead canopy, three spiral strands of recycled bottles and a canvas floor mat.
Figure 1. Attrition. This image shows a general view of the solo installation in an art gallery.
The bottles in Attrition were filled with a repeated pattern of deep colors in the sequence of the rainbow, meant by the artist to represent the sign of the covenant given by God to man after the Great Flood in the Old Testament. In each spiral the rainbow sequences are broken by bottles of glitter in colloidal suspension in the Fibonacci numbering sequence, which in turn approximates the Golden Mean as the sequence expands. As a foil to these positive notes photos of the landfill on the canvas floor mat tiles have the colors of the rainbow removed in a diagonal section as a warning of loss. Likewise, the ostensibly bright colors on the canopy are photos of storm clouds with darkened ribbon-like patterns moving towards small openings in the clouds along with orbs bearing the text of the Kyrie from the Roman Catholic mass beginning “Lord have mercy on us.”
Contrition was a 200 square foot (29 square meter) site-specific installation in the Glass Cube Gallery on the exterior of Hotel Indigo in Athens, Georgia, USA, August through December 2013 (see figure 2). Major installation components were positive prints of panoramic photos of three Greek temples facing outward through clerestory windows with their inverse images facing inward; a column of recycled bottles containing faded tints of rainbow colored water in amounts reduced in units based on the Fibonacci numbering sequence; backlit copies of the original photograph taken in Murano on angled forms at ground level; randomly placed discarded water bottles on the floor; dozens of bottles being raised throughout the installation by caliper-like forms, some bearing autobiographical ex votos.
Figure 2. Contrition. This image shows the installation within the exterior Glass Cube.
Babel Amidst an Arising an installation accepted in a juried art show, ArtFields 2014, Lake City, South Carolina, USA, May 2014 (see figure 3 ...). The fact that the location was with an active retail setting was not made clear to the artist until several weeks before the installation. The installation measured nine feet (three meters) on each side and occupied approximately 290 square feet (27 square meters) including perimeter circulation. One student initially interpreted spiraling forms bearing Koranic names for Allah in Attrition as “Islamic bombs.” This student recanted the interpretation after discussion with other students.
Figure 3. Babel Amidst an Arising. This image shows the installation within a retail setting.
Major installation components were a square tower of recycled bottles similar to the round one in Contrition; eight panels with text from the Old Testament story of Babel in nearly 20 languages; recordings of those languages played simultaneously and randomly on four video monitors around the base of the column; videos of images of earth, wind, fire and water captured on four continents, each with contradictory audio recordings captured in situ; and angled displays similar to those in Contrition on each corner with tori-like mantels overhead. The landfill photo again provides a base for the installation.
Denzin also notes that “Mead compared popular culture unfavorably with fine art…. Fine art is healthy and normal and elevates men’s existence to new moral planes ”. This point is noted here because Attrition was the only one of the three art installations under consideration that was located within a space easily recognizable as an art gallery. Contrition was set in a glass box attached to the exterior of a hotel, not unlike a store window. Babel Amidst an Arising was placed within a retail showroom. These contexts inevitably affected the meanings attached to the installations by the viewers.
Teaching an Understanding of Design Conceptswithin a Symbolic Interactionism Framework
Jain Kwon has taught an entry-level design course entitled Concepts Studio for several years. Each time she used a series of four projects to help students understand the term concept and also to help them understand how they ascribe meaning to objects. Each project involved three essential phases paralleling the bases upon which symbolic interaction are built: self-indication, social interaction and joint action . The second of the projects was designed to help students understand concept through experiencing artwork in gallery and museum settings.
Lehn, Heath and Hindmarsh have noted that museums and galleries “facilitate studying how material properties of the environment, namely exhibits, feature in and are constituted through, interaction among people within the same space….even among people who may simply happen to be in each other’s presence” [7, p. 191]. They go on to note that the “experience of objects and artifacts emerge within and are constituted through interaction, interaction that inextricably relies on a social organization which informs the very ways in which things are seen and experienced” [7, p.209].
With these thoughts in mind Dr. Kwon assigned students to visit an art installation at a local art gallery. The first year the installation was Attrition at the Lamar Dodd School of Art and the second it was Contrition at Hotel Indigo in Athens, Georgia, USA (see above). Students then went to the Georgia Museum of Art, on campus at the University of Georgia, to identify artworks they considered relevant to the installation in concept and meaning. Following the two visits, each student wrote a two-page narrative about the concepts and meanings of the two artworks that they interpreted. Students shared their interpretations through class from the perspective of symbolic interactionism, specifically in light of the societal issues addressed.
Representative anecdotal observations from the reports on Attrition submitted by students include the following.
Most students missed the negative connotations. They responded to the brightness of the colors. The artist anticipated this reaction in the hope that upon reflection the viewer would see the contradiction between the positive colors and negative content.
The culturally based reference to a mandala with the canopy in Attrition was missed. Several students referred to the canopy as a chandelier.
Several students acknowledged the Islamic names for Allah. This may have been the result of interaction with others. One student saw the number 99 as being one short of perfection.
One saw the bottles with Arabic as “Islamic” bombs. Conversely one student noted that the bottles were hung in a way that made them look they were rising, not falling.
One student saw the canvas mat as spatter paint adding a fun element to the art.
Subsequently, students reported an increased awareness of underlying meanings. They became more aware of the effects of symbolic interactionism in their lives. Significantly, the artist also is an observer; so the cyclical nature of symbolic interactionism is duly noted here.
An understanding of how the theory of symbolic interactionism affects the meaning observers give to art can help the artist anticipate reaction to the art. Likewise, the physical location of the art adds meaning to the art. One enters a gallery expecting to experience art, one walks by an exterior window or into a store expecting to see a display.
The creation of the art described here and the meaning added to it by the observers confirmed the basic premises of symbolic interactionism: objects have meaning ascribed by the individual, these are affected by social interaction and that interaction can lead to joint action or reinterpretation by a group of people. Further, as noted by Smith, some art acts as agents to shape our thoughts and actions and invites self-reflection.
 Blumer, H. Symbolic interactionism: Perspective and method, Prentice Hall, Inc., USA, p 2, 1969.  Charon, J.M. Symbolic interactionism: An introduction, an interpretation, an integration (10th ed.), Prentice Hall, USA, pp 1-11, 2010.  Ibid. pp 201-203.  Denzin, N.K. Symbolic interactionism and cultural studies: The politics of interpretation, Blackwell Publishers, USA, pp 7-8, 1992.  Ibid, pp 136-137.  Goffman, E. The presentation of self in everyday life, Anchor Books, USA, 1959.  Lehn, D.v., Heath, C., & Hindmarsh, J. Exhibiting interaction: Conduct and collaboration in museums and galleries, Symbolic Interaction, USA, Vol. 24, no. 2, pp 189-216, 2001.  Smith, R.S. & Bugni, V. Symbolic interaction theory and architecture, Symbolic Interaction, USA. __________ Connecting with Observers, Connecting with Self: Symbolic Interactionism and Installation Art. Houser, T. and Kwon, J. Paper published in conference proceedings, International SGEM Conference on Arts, Performing Arts, Architecture and Design, Albena, Bulgaria, Sep 1-10.