Visual documentation of media art installations are frequently peppered with pictures of happy children. A child interacting with an artwork is presented as the ultimate sign of its success. But do we want children to be our critics? Is the ‘kid-factor’ a defensive strategy on the part of the media art community, a regressive internalisation of arts funding agencies’ desire for accessibility? Are we infantilised by interactivity – just as Theodor Adorno warned that popular culture infantilises because it removes our critical capacity and eventually banishes seriousness itself?
This paper explores critical ambivalence to the playful dimension within media art. Specifically it addresses the major, audience-focused biennial exhibitions held by Melbourne-based organisation Experimenta Media Arts, such as Vanishing Point (2005) and Experimenta Playground (2007). These exhibitions have included a wide range of ‘playful’ Australian and international media art with relatively little concern for political content or critical reflection on the technology utilised. With an organisational mission of presenting the space ‘where creativity and technology meet’, Experimenta have, in recent years, essentially focused on mediated theatricality in visual art (fittingly, their major exhibitions begin their tour in a darkened performing arts centre). In contemporary art more broadly, critics have identified an increasingly fine line between the fun park and the conceptual display of utopian logics. Can play be critical? Can it liberate us from the routines of everyday life? By engaging the body in space in unexpected ways, can it be ethical as well as aesthetic pleasure, drawing attention to the antagonistic, performative, interdependent and embodied basis of our social relations? Or does play merely imitate a consumerist logic? And is it useful to generalise?