Experiential Art

The Act of Arting

“ A painting is not about an experience. It is an experience. ”
– Mark Rothko

My initial ideas about experiential art arose out of one of the problems that is particularly troubling for the conscientious photographer, which is the fact that the photograph more often than not, hides the process and effort that went into making it. While some see this as a benefit, as in the case of those who stage their photos, or try to make their manipulations appear as natural as possible in print, I felt that the largest part of my work was being obscured as if it was an untold story in need of an all-important voice.
I realised that beyond the photographs themselves, which would be the only things available for an outsider to experience, and which the experience would be confined to an entirely visual one, there were more products to this process than what could be conveyed and restricted to image alone.
Travelling on foot in order to photograph the plants, trees, and hedges that made up a portion of my series on domestication, was altering me mentally and physically, and this experience was inseparable from the photos that were poor symbols or hints of the work that went into producing them.

I began envisaging a new way for art to act as a method of communication, and in the same way that use of written language is an attempt to replicate the experiences of the writer, I saw experiential art as being a method concerned with the efficacy of the transmission of ideas and experiences which are usually confined to the artist himself. This was inspired in part, by the fact that all too often I found myself saying “I don’t get it”, when trying to understand the photographs, or more accurately, the intentions of the person behind the photographs that I would frustratingly come across in magazines and websites that would often provide no background information on the images. In this way, my concept of experiential art also grew out of the desire to (re)connect the artist and the audience, to make art accessible instead of alien and obscure. To have art be a process of discovery and understanding, instead of an endless, open-ended void of personal interpretation.

I noticed that when we find something interesting and worth sharing we often want the audience to see things in the same light and with the same intensity we do. Therefore, it could be said that it is the experience which we intend to share. But experience is shaped by such things as prior knowledge. For example the efficacy of parody relies on both specific and general knowledge of the subject being targeted, but perhaps more importantly, on the fact that the piece itself is intended to be parody. In other ways, my experience of food for example, can be influenced by knowledge or even just belief about where it came from and how it was produced and prepared. So in terms of experiencing, understanding and appreciating art, background knowledge can play a crucial role, particularly in instances where the final piece is abstract or otherwise non-obvious in nature.

I also saw that there was confusion about art, stemming from the need to correctly identify differences where they existed. There is first the experience and the process which produces the product, which we often call ‘a work of art’, which I define as “art-produce”, then, only once there is a tangible product can the audience experience this work of art. But we must remember that:

Experience ≠ Art-Produce ≠ Experience of Art-Produce

From this point of view the ‘original’ refers to the experience, therefore, in order to understand the work or the product, the audience must be brought one step closer to the original. In this way, art-produce is actually a distraction that diverts our attention away from the process and focuses it instead on a small, convenient part of the whole. There are many reasons why our perceptions and conceptions of art may be biased towards art-produce, here are just a few of the benefits:

  • Art-produce serves as memorabilia of past experiences and allows others to re-live them through low-fidelity copies
  • Art-produce can serve as a historical record
  • Art-produce is fixed in time, and thus transcends personal experience which is fleeting
  • Art-produce can pass from one location to another
  • Art-produce can be used as currency
  • Art-produce can be experienced visually and visual experience is much more naturally processed (thinking fast), I.e. it is readily available even to the uninformed and inexperienced – it has entertainment value
  • Art-produce allows the democratisation of experiences – you don’t have to be able to paint in order to see or appreciate a painting, and you don’t have to go to Africa when you can see it in photographs (we are a culture of observers of culture)
  • An object, a product, can be worshipped, owned and sought after, it can also be used to symbolise wealth or status for example

On the other hand, experience doesn’t lend itself easily to duplication, and more importantly it is difficult to turn into a commodity. Although we experience art indirectly through movie theatres, galleries and even concerts, their success relies on there being a product that can be diffused to the masses. Domestication has seen a progression to owning things and the mass production of objects. Experiential art is a regression to experiences in such a way that makes it difficult to monetize.

The role of the the experiential artist is to conceive of valuable experiences and effective ways of transmitting them to others.

Elements of Experiential Art:

  • Learning (a skill or about a particular subject)
  • Perspective (doing new things, visiting new places, seeing with fresh eyes)
  • Long time scales and involvement
  • Necessary user input (personal connection and value)
  • Challenge (physical/mental, get out of your comfort zone)

So when we think of art as experience, we can no longer conceive of a passive audience who simply browses a set of images or objects from a comfortable distance, because a much larger personal investment is necessary.

One way of thinking about what experiential art might be is to consider sheet music. The composer is the experiential artist, the originator and first-experiencer, it is then the role of the musician to learn, practice and interpret the piece through his choice of instrument, to put himself into the music, to play with feeling.

Experiential art is a change from observation to participation. Learning by doing as opposed to Art Theory, which is the passive acceptance of art products. You may be able, or rather, think that you are able to imagine almost anything, but in reality the actual experience is very different from your flat imaginings. Imagining is not good enough, you must experience!

Experiential art values imitation as a natural and necessary means of learning and generating novel experiences.

Experiential art is a method for cultivating ‘slow thinking’ as it is procedural and long-term in nature. Compared to the longest film, piece of music or play, Experiential art is a quantum leap in terms of the time-scales involved, and not to mention the input necessary on the part of the participant/audience/re-creator.

The term ‘experiential art’ has been used already, but in all of the examples I found, the ideas were still based on the concept of experiencing art-produce, in the form of an installation for example. What my idea proposes is that you must walk barefoot in the shoes of the artist, and use his hands to understand.

Although my original desire to collect and express my thoughts on experiential art was initiated because of photography, the real seeds of this way of thinking go back much further to my days of practising parkour. Parkour contains all of the elements of experiential art as listed above, but on the outside it appears to be just an extreme sport, rather than an art-form.

In hindsight, my earliest videos document some of the origins of experiential art, such as this one and particularly this one. As was the case with the land art movement, photographs and videos have played an important role in documenting what might otherwise have faded into history. Here, the images serve as aesthetic reminders of the experience, which can in turn stimulate enquiry and the desire for similar experiences in others (inspiration). While the experience may more often than not be accompanied by a visual record of it, we must keep in mind that the two are separable.

Through experiential art I aim to break up the monotony of routine thoughts, actions, and stagnant self-perception, through willpower, self-discipline, determination and commitment, with empty hands and an open mind.

Experiential art is self-empowerment through re-engagement with the environment, and re-connection to our innate capacities as human beings.


“ Tell me and I’ll forget; show me and I may remember; involve me and I’ll understand. ”
– Chinese proverb