Erwin Redl, Whiteout, 2017. Steel, animated white LEDs, stainless steel cable, low voltage insulated wire. Photos: Moorehart Photography, courtesy UAP.

On the design of interactive art for healing

By Miao Xu

This is an excerpt from Miao Xu’s larger thesis portfolio, titled “On the Design of Interactive Art for Healing.” This work can also be found in the Class of 2019 publication, Everything That Rises: Thinking about Design in Precarious Times.

One in five American adults use at least one psychiatric medication. In 2010, 11 percent of adult men and 21 percent of adult women revealed they were taking antidepressants.¹

Aldous Huxley, the early 20th century English writer and philosopher, foresaw that we seem to be entering the age of mockery; one example being that medical research has “advanced” to the point where few people are considered healthy.

What should people do if they feel that they are wrongfully diagnosed by their doctor with one or several of a plethora of mental “illnesses” because of mood swings caused by life problems? What if they prefer not to take pills?

“That is the most important thing I have said: Art is a guarantee of sanity,” Louise Bourgeois, a French-American artist and sculptor declared as she sat for a ninetieth-year, pre-birthday conversation in 2001.²

My research focuses on analyzing the therapeutic appeal of public interactive installation art, and how that art can be used to heal the masses’ emotions caused by the stresses of daily life.

According to the American Art Therapy Association, art therapists are trained to understand the roles that color, texture, and various art media can play in the therapeutic process, and how these tools can help reveal one’s thoughts, feelings, and psychological disposition.³

Interactive art installation is a form of art that involves the spectator to achieve its purpose. Some interactive art installation accomplishes this by letting the observer or visitor walk in, on, and/or around the piece; some others ask the artist or the spectators to become part of the artwork itself.4

I do my research purely as an artist. And as an artist, I can’t treat people like a doctor. What I’m talking about here is interactive art as a therapy for emotions, an analysis of how it can be a gateway to communicate with people’s common memory, and the key to broaden people’s expectations for the future.

American cognitive psychologist Donald A. Norman proposed three levels of the development of emotional experience: the instinctual level, the behavioral level, and the reflectional level.5 These three levels are incorporated into the evaluation of emotional experience through design. Compared with the first two, the reflectional level has a longer-lasting impact on people, which is also the goal interactive art needs to achieve to have the purpose of healing.

Art taps into people’s emotions, and as Elizabeth DelliCarpini, an instructor in the MPS Art Therapy Department at the School of Visual Arts, said, “Creating a safe space is crucial in art therapy.” This sense of safety, which comes from the psychological environment, is applied to many aspects of interactive art. So, what makes visitors feel a sense of safety and brings visitors a reflectional experience in the space of interactive installation art? Erwin Redl’s work Whiteout is an example of how interactive art in public space can bring safety to the community, and emotional healing to visitors.

Whiteout is a controversial project. Curator Martin Friedman of Madison Square Art, said: “Redl is summoning Earthworks for his project in Madison Square Park. Like Dennis Oppenheim and Robert Smithson’s art, the overall form of Whiteout brings a geometric expanse to the outdoor realm.”6 There are quite a few people, however, who have no feeling for this installation and believe it to be merely another piece of light artwork showing off technology.

In order to conduct my research, I interviewed more than 20 people who were sitting in Madison Square Park and had experienced Edle’s light installation. I showed the pictures of Whiteout to them and asked the following questions: What did you feel about this artwork? Do you think the work brought you a feeling of psychological safety? What did you think about this artwork at daytime? Could you psychologically interact with the art installation in some way?

From the interviews, I found that most park visitors liked this installation because it fit well with the environment. Only two people insisted that this artwork did not bring them a sense of psychological safety. Most visitors believed that they felt safer at night when they crossed the park alone with the illumination of the artwork. In Whiteout, safety is communicated by color, light, and space.

During the daytime, this installation stopped people from crossing the park directly, so some people felt inconvenienced. On the contrary, people who liked to spend their time in the park said that seeing the 900 orbs swing with the wind, they could meditate and empty their minds in front of the artwork. As to interaction, most visitors thought the artwork interfaced well with the wind, like orbs with wings. This is one of the reasons that people thought the artwork could help them sense the changes of nature and visualize the flow of the wind. They felt that this installation could bring them close to nature and give them peaceful and joyful feelings.

Whiteout is an installation that is not designed explicitly to heal, but brings the audience into the state of immersion, similar to the state American psychologist Abraham Maslow defined as “peak experience,” or what the Hungarian-American psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s called “flow.” That is, it is the sense of wholeness that people get when they are fully engaged in an activity. Attention becomes more focused while irrelevant feelings are filtered out.

Another example of an installation with arguable healing effects is Marta Minujín’s The Parthenon of Books. Her work both links together and loops between time and place; specifically, between ancient Athens, as a symbol of freedom of expression, and the park where the installation stood in the German city of Kassel, the previous site of Nazi book burnings. It is my view that The Parthenon of Books offered people an experience of reflection on freedom and censorship.

This work proposes a form of catharsis for the mass public, who may collectively hold or be aware of distressing memories caused by the tragic cultural and historical trauma of book burnings. This constructive yet forceful example of interactive installation art provides a safe and memorable space with an array of knowledge-themed activities, including but not limited to group presentations, donating books, and bringing books home. The Parthenon of Books is “a monumental project, but an immaterial one,” said curator Pierre Bal-Blanc. “It will disappear just as quickly as it has appeared.”7

Interactive art installation can be used to connect people and prompt shared psychological responses, and it can serve as a bridge to interpersonal communication and emotional catharsis. Therefore, we should further explore the potential of interactive art installations in public space for healing through creating experiences of reflection in the context of safe spaces.

¹ Allen Frances, Saving Normal: An Insider’s Revolt Against Out-of-control Psychiatric Diagnosis, Dsm-5, Big Pharma, and the Medicalization Of Ordinary Life, (William Morrow 2014), 21.

² Amei Wallachdec, “Louise Bourgeois At 90, Weaving Complexities,” The New York Times, Dec 25, 2001, E00001.


4 Joan Soler-Adillon, The intangible material of interactive art: agency, behavior, and emergence (Artnode, 2015), 5.

5 Donald Norman, Emotional Design: Why We Love (or Hate) Everyday Things (Basic Books, 2005), 63.


7 Yannick Pasquet. ‘Parthenon of Books;’ Monumental artwork at Documenta 14 protests censorship.” Accessed April 02, 2019.

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SVA MA Design Research, Writing and Criticism

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