e-PAIVirtuosity and Performance Mastery issue, 2003/04

Naturalistic Inquiry as (Meta-)Audience Feedback

Copyright © Ralf Nuhn 2003.

(No part of this text may be reproduced without the written permission of the author.)

Ralf Nuhn

This material was presented live at the Virtuosity and Performance Mastery symposium for postgraduate/research degree students and academic staff over two days by Performing Arts at Middlesex University on 31st May and 1st June 2003.


The starting point for this presentation is my own artistic practice which revolves around interactive mixed reality environments that seek to establish and explore relationships between screen based virtual environments and their physical counterparts. Besides broader physico-philosophical considerations my work is motivated by issues regarding human-computer interaction as well as social interaction within computer assisted ecologies. I am therefore very interested in how audiences receive and interact with my installations, and I am planning to conduct a naturalistic inquiry to evaluate this aspect of my work. I will argue that this research approach is not an abstract academic exercise but instead has become part of my artistic programme and might inform my future practice.

1 Introduction

The key objective of this presentation is to illustrate how the idea of doing a naturalistic inquiry of audience behaviour within the environment of my exhibitions has become part of my artistic program rather than being an academic burden. Naturalistic inquiry is a form of qualitative research developed in an ethnographic context, which stresses the existence of multiple constructed realities and on the need to remain true to context. In particular it opposes the notion of the research experiment and instead argues for research within naturalistic settings [1].

Further, in the context of this symposium as well as with regards to my own practice, I feel it is necessary to address relationships between live performance and installation art, in particular with regards to the role of the audience. In order to do that, I will briefly summarise my artistic development from a live stage performer to an inter-media installation artist.

2 Artistic development and concepts

After a failed career as a performing vocalist in various German underground bands my main performance activities revolved around collaborative (musical) improvisation projects and the use of every-day objects and modified instruments as sound sources as well as sculptural objects.

For me, one key aspect of these improvisation projects was not to flaunt my non-existing musical skills, but rather to emphasize on the collage of objects and instruments themselves and, of course, the often idiosyncratic and unexpected sounds they would emit. However, I often felt that these aspects got neglected and people couldn't really engage with what was going on. This impression was supported by audience behaviour after the performances when people would often come up to the performance area to have a closer look at and sometimes play the objects and instruments we were using. To some extent it was a direct response to these performance issues which inspired me to present my work in an installation format that invites to play, but can ultimately perform itself.

By eliminating the necessity of a human performer, I intended to create a performance situation which is focused on the objects and their sonic characteristics rather than on the (musical) gestures and interpretations of a live player.

In this context my approach could also be viewed as a reinterpretation of Marcel Duchamp's interest in "producing sound by means of precision musical instruments designed to avoid artistic skill or virtuosoism" [2].

To further illustrate my initial approach to installation art, I would like to present a short video of my sound sculpture Staccato Death/Life.

The video is available online at:


(Quicktime is required for video playback. Download free at http://www.apple.com/quicktime/download/).

Whenever I have exhibited Staccato Death/Life the audience response - behavioural as well as verbal - was extremely positive. Most people interacted with the sculpture by using the computer interface and they closely examined the sounding and moving objects. There also was a strong element of social interaction around the exhibit, e.g. people would learn how to use the computer interface by watching other people and they would often discuss their experiences and views about the piece with each other. However, it appeared that people were more fascinated by the "magical" relationship between the computer and the physical sculpture than by the sounds themselves. One could argue that this audience response undermines the original sound-focused concept behind the installation. On the other hand, this (mis-)interpretation was a major inspiration in the development of my current artistic interests which, as mentioned above, focus on relationships between the virtual and physical domain.

The central concern of my current project Uncaged is to create interactive telesymbiotic installations which establish and explore relationships between computer based virtual environments and their surrounding physical counterparts, and ultimately try to defy the boundaries between the two.

In the first instance I regard this project as being an expression of pure artistic vision and intuition inspired by broader physico-philosophical considerations. For instance, Uncaged is concerned with the quantum physical notion of non-locality and its implications for the existence of an invisible reality that supports our world. Further, by implying a physical manifestation of the virtual image Uncaged addresses Jean Baudrillard's concept of a hyperrealist world where any direct experiences are replaced by televised images [3].

On a more "immanent" level Uncaged is motivated by issues regarding human-computer interaction as well as social interaction within computer assisted ecologies. For instance, Uncaged deals with recent findings by the WIT group at King's College London which suggest that most conventional screen based exhibits in galleries and museums "not only undermine co-participation and collaboration at the exhibit itself, but remove the possibility of others seeing and making relevant sense of what people are doing elsewhere within the scene" [4]. I am confident that Uncaged can evade the problem of inhibiting social interaction amongst gallery audiences because it extends the screen based interactive platform into the physical domain and vice versa. At this point I would like to present a video featuring initial studies for Uncaged.

The video is available online at:


(Quicktime is required for video playback. Download free at http://www.apple.com/quicktime/download/).

3 My practical work within the context of academia

The fact that, as a practice-based researcher and PhD student, I need to contextualize my artistic work within an academic context combined with my positive experience with observing and talking to audiences of my installations, has resulted in the idea to use the methodological framework of a naturalistic inquiry to investigate the issues mentioned before, e.g. human-computer interaction, and disseminate findings within the relevant academic communities (e.g. HCI community). At the same time I intend to use the results as inspiration to further develop my arts practice.

The main questions that will guide my research are:

· Does Uncaged stimulate audience interaction with the artefacts?

· Does Uncaged stimulate social interaction within computer assisted ecologies.

· How do audiences perceive Uncaged in comparison to conventional screen based art?

· Does Uncaged provoke audiences to re-evaluate their relationship to screen based media?

The primary data collection methods for this study will be audio-visual observation of the participants, semi-structured interviews and general observational notes. This combination of different data gathering methods follows the principle of triangulation, as proposed by Lincoln and Guba [5], and leads to credibility of the naturalistic inquiry. According to Lincoln and Guba, the term credibility replaces the notion of internal validity in a more conventional inquiry.

With regards to the analysis of the data obtained I would like to mention briefly the three key elements of a naturalistic data analysis, as outlined by Lincoln and Guba[1].

1. Unitising data: disaggregating data into the smallest pieces of information that may stand alone as independent thoughts in the absence of additional information other than a broad understanding of the context.

2. Emergent category designation: involves taking all of the units of data and sorting them into categories of ideas. The researcher must understand that the construction that emerges through this practice is but one of many possible constructions of reality.

3. Negative case analysis: involves addressing and considering alternative interpretations of the data, particularly noting pieces of data that would tend to refute [disprove] the researcher's construction of reality. Hypotheses are tested against individual pieces of data to determine the viability of the hypothesis. Hypotheses are revised until there is no substantive difference between the hypotheses and the data. In order to further illustrate the relationship between the raw data obtained and the final results or model of the study I would like to quote David Ellis [6], who was my colleague at Sheffield University where I have conducted a naturalistic inquiry of electroacoustic composers at work:

The model derived should organize the features or the data in a coherent form that relates both to the perceptions and concepts of those studied and to the viewpoint that the researcher is developing. In that sense, although the concepts are derived from the data, they are not simply a restatement of the data. In developing the model with its attendant categories, properties, and relations, the researcher embodies the perceptions and activities of those studied in the model but in a way that allows them to be understood in other terms.

4 In lieu of a conclusion

Finally, I would like to propose a "model" that juxtaposes direct audience feedback in a live performance situation, as shown in Figure 1, with (meta-) audience feedback obtained through naturalistic inquiry in an installation art context, as shown in Figure 2.

figure 1

Fig. 1: Live feedback between performer and audience in a performance context.

figure 2

Fig. 2: (Meta-) audience feedback through naturalistic inquiry in an installation art context.

5 References

[1] Lincoln, Y.S. & Guba, E.G. (1985). Naturalistic inquiry. Sage Publications, California.

[2] Kahn, D. ed. (1992). Wireless Imagination. MIT Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts.

[3] Baudrillard, J. (1993). The transparency of Evil: Essays on Extreme Phenomena. Verso, London.

[4] Heath, C., v. Lehm, D. (2003). Misconstruing Interaction. Proc. Interactive Learning in Museums of Art and Design '02, London.

[5] The term "telesymbiotic" is sometimes used in biological research and literally means "symbiotic over a distance". I have adopted this term to describe Uncaged's unique approach to bridge the distance between the physical world and the virtual world of computers.

[6] Ellis, D. (1993). Modelling the information seeking patterns of academic researchers: A grounded theory approach. In Library Quarterly, Vol 63 (4), pp 469-486.

Ralf Nuhn was born in Germany in 1971 and has lived in London since 1996. He is an intermedia artist who has exhibited and performed nationally and internationally. Ralf is currently employed as a practice-based researcher by the Lansdown Centre for Electronic Arts at Middlesex University, where he is also working towards his PhD.

Background image copyright © Ralf Nuhn.

Web design © John Robinson 2004.

Last updated 30th August 2004.