Building Interactivity into Public Art
Building Interactivity into Public Art

Building Interactivity into Public Art

Why is interactivity an essential element of public art? Do you think that interactivity can improve an audience’s relationship with public art?

Public art is, by definition, art in spaces available to the public. It can be any work of art that is designed for and sited in a space accessible to the public (Mohd Fabian et al., 2012). Forms of public art have been evolving, from architectural sculpture, monuments, and memorials, to community art, digital art, and interactive installations. Public art has been playing a pivotal role in urban design and culture-led urban regeneration since the 1870s, when USA’s first private non-profit public art organization, Fairmount Park Art Association (now the Association for Public Art) was established to integrate public art into urban planning. Researchers and art advocates have investigated the values that public art brings to cities and public spaces, and their conclusions mainly fall into the following three categories (Miles, 1997; Sharp et al., 2005; Hall & Smith, 2005; McCarthy, 2006):

(1) Aesthetic value: Public art enhances the visual attractiveness of urban environments.

(2) Economic value: Public art gives cities competitive advantages and local distinctiveness, which could further attract investment, boost cultural tourism, create local employment, and increase the use of land and spaces.

(3) Social value: Public art creates a stronger sense of place and identity while connecting communities and places. Public art can also act as an intervention of social changes and foster social inclusion in cities.

One key element that differs public art from art produced for display in museums and galleries is that public art is often site-specific, meaning it is created in response to the place and community in which it resides. Therefore, creating public art needs a certain level of customization to the physical local environment. Additionally, it is crucial to understand that different audiences have different needs and opinions towards the artwork inserted in the urban space. In other words, public art artists need to make the artwork more connected to social and local contexts. That is why creating this people-art-space interaction is so critical. 

Public Art and Interactivity

When discussing interactivity in public art, it is crucial to first clarify the distinction between the two types of ‘interactivity’: interactive artworks in a public space that are designed for engagement, and interventions that offer interactivity between the public and artworks. The former ‘interactivity’ refers to the medium used in a form of art that invites audiences to participate by providing an input or operation. As a medium, interactivity allows for various types of audience input (Paul, 2003). It should be noted that the process of interactions does not necessarily involve the use of computers. It could be any artwork that allows the audience to touch and play with it. An early example of this is Rotary Glass Plates (1920) by Marcel Duchamp, which requires the viewers to turn the piece on. Cloud Gate (2006) by Anish Kapoor is another example of interactive public art installation that successfully builds connections between people and place. With the rapid development of technology, artists now frequently adopt computer-based interactivity such as interfaces, sensors, and information display technologies to respond to audience input. Rafael Lozano-Hemmer’s interactive installation Pulse Tank (2008) uses heart rate sensors and computers to detect the heart rates of audiences and convert them into water waves in a ripple tank.

Figure 1: Photograph of  Cloud Gate,  by Marripati Bhargava. Source:  Pexels.
Figure 1: Photograph of Cloud Gate, by Marripati Bhargava. Source: Pexels.

The second concept of ‘interactivity’ refers to the systems and interventions designed to drive public engagement. Regardless of what medium–whether it is murals or digital new media–the emphasis here is the approach that public art artists/administrators/governments take to enhance community engagement and participation in the process of designing, consuming and managing public art. The discussion in this research will mainly focus on this aspect.

Interaction design seeks digital and physical solutions to manage complex human and environmental challenges. Interaction design is defined as “the practice of designing interactive digital products, environments, systems, and services.” (Cooper et al., 2007) It is also described as “the creation of a dialogue between a person and a product, system, or service. This dialogue is both physical and digital and is manifested in the interplay between form, function, and technology as experienced over time.” (Kolko, 2010)

Both public art production and interaction design highlight a ‘human-oriented’ collaborative approach. The process of making public art is closely associated with the concept of interaction, audience engagement, and experience design, which determines that public art artists and interaction designers share a common ground. First, engagement and experience are central to the thinking of both interaction design and interactive public art (Edmonds, 2014). Second, both public art production and interaction design needs the participation of users or communities to understand the needs and contexts of their works. Public art allows for public participation in planning, selection, creation, installation, maintenance, and collective appreciation. (Brennan, 2019)

The City of Fargo’s Public Art Master Plan is a good example of integrating “human-centered” design in their planning process. In order to establish an effective program that makes public art more reflective of the communities in which it is located, the Art and Culture Commission conducted varied strategic action steps to gather information and understand the public art needs and wants of the residents of Fargo. Their approaches included focus groups, a call for Public Art Possibilities, Arts and Culture Commission (ACC) work sessions, interviews, location analysis, analysis of existing local models, and discussions with the Downtown Development team. Diverse groups of local residents such as faith communities, civic organizations, and youth programs, were involved in the collaborate planning process to voice their opinions and visions for public art in the city.

Figure 2: The Planning process of Fargo Public Art Project in order to help understand the public art needs and wants of the citizens of Fargo. Source: Author, using material by “ Public Art Master Plan, The Fargo Project .”
Figure 2: The Planning process of Fargo Public Art Project in order to help understand the public art needs and wants of the citizens of Fargo. Source: Author, using material by “Public Art Master Plan, The Fargo Project.”

Public art administrators and artists can benefit from the designer’s perspective of understanding the external environment. Interaction designers use participatory methods as tools to assess human needs, implementation of solutions, and impact measurement. Typical tools include qualitative research, persona, scenario, wireframe, and prototype. It helps designers to analyze the users’ needs, limitations, and contexts and customize the output. Candy and Ferguson (2014) suggest that the public art environments are “multilayer,” “complex,” and “not easy to control,” thus the artists should make some efforts to understand the behaviors of audiences when engaging with their works in public spaces. This process also transforms the role of “users” and “viewers” into “collaborators.” 


Interactivity is an essential element of public art. Both the process of making public art and the development of interaction design seek solutions to complex challenges by highlighting a ‘human-centered’ collaborative approach. It is critical for public art artists, administrators, and governments to increase involvement and make public art more reflective of the place and community in which it resides through interactive and participatory approaches.


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