Panel discussion on digital tools, Design Museum Helsinki

Yesterday (25/1/2011) I took part in a panel discussion entitled “New Digital Tools, New Media Art and Design“, at the Design Museum Helsinki, organized by Media Lab Helsinki, as part of the Avoin 140 exhibition celebrating the 140 years of TaiK / School of Art and Design. The remaining participants were other members of the Media Lab staff: Koray Tahiroglu, Markku Reunanen, Rasmus Vuori, Till Bovermann.

My presentation centered around the development of my latest project, AV Clash, as an example of an art work on the threshold of becoming a tool. I also mentioned Reactable and Tenori-on as projects in the frontier between art work and tool.



In my presentation, I asked the following question:

  • What makes a digital project an art work or a tool?

And provided some tentative answers:

  • Number of possible variations over the initial set of materials
  • Feeling of self-expression / creativity for users
  • Possibilities for re-distribution / re-deployment of final result
  • Appropriate (or lack of?) copyright framing

In the discussion that followed, this and other questions were debated, such as:

  • Do tools influence your creativity and the outcome of your work?
  • Does making your own tools give you an edge as an artist?
  • Is developing tools taking away valuable time from making art?
  • Are open source tools preferable to commercial tools?
  • What is the importance of communities around a certain tool?
  • What makes a certain type of tool better than another?
  • Do certain tools create work with a validity period?
  • Do digital matters have a distinctive essence?


  1. Interesting topics Nuno : )

    Few thinks came to my mind. From interaction perspective the tool term encourages mastering an artifact – digital or physical. I think that digital project is not necessarily an art work no matter how much expression it enables. However, the outcome of the expressive way of using the interaction device can be very artistic. Question arises. Is it possible to master an interaction device through expression? The tool perspective appreciates efficiency and task execution. Instead, exploration perspective is important part of supporting creativity.

    Best regards


  2. Hi Matti,

    Thanks for your thoughts. Not sure I understand exactly where you stand; also my above summary is so brief that some terms might be misleading without the context of the presentation behind it. I feel the discussion is easier by giving some examples, which I did during the presentation.

    By “digital project” I meant any digital artifact that might be considered new media art. For example, projects showcased at new media art festivals such as Ars Electronica or Transmediale. I believe it’s consensual that one can consider those projects as art works.

    For example, let’s go beyond the examples mentioned in the post and take Jörg Piringer’s “abcdefghijklmnopqrstuvwxyz”, honorary mention at Ars Electronica 2010, category “digital musics and sound art”. In the project website, it is stated: “abcdefghijklmnopqrstuvwxyz is a sound toy, a performance tool and an art work in its own right” ( So, let us assume it is an art work. If I use “abcdefghijklmnopqrstuvwxyz” to make a music track, or a music video, is the resulting work art? If not, what makes it different from something composed with, say, a Roland TR-808 or Ableton Live? The same question could be put regarding Reactable or Tenori-on, mentioned in my post.

    What is the difference between “expressive way of using interaction” as you mention, and art? Expression has often been used as an important element to characterize art… As the whole Chapter 5 of Colin Lyas’s Aesthetics testifies: Actually, I believe that aesthetics gives us many clues to solve this enigma.

    I also have my doubts about “task execution”, in the light of the examples I mentioned. It reminds me of games, which are goal oriented. The examples I mentioned are more oriented to the “exploration perspective” you mention.

    All the best,


  3. Hi Nuno,

    It is truly an interesting question can the digital interactive artifact itself can be an art piece.

    Regarding to aesthetics and the question what is the difference between aesthetic interaction and art. Petersen et al. writes aesthetics and its potential in interactive systems in their article, Aesthetic Interaction — A Pragmatist’s Aesthetics of Interactive Systems.

    Examining the Piringer’s work in the light of Petersen, the interaction invites the participant into play and the role of an improvisor is given to the player. In that way the person using the instrument can produce art e.g. in a performance context. These could also be achieved through other wonderful interaction devices you mentioned. In that way I don’t make distinction between them. Also, it remarkable to notice that the App is sold in App Store, which is great. Many people can create music and be creative using the technology. Art seems to define itself in the context it exists. Can we assume that the awarded interaction device is no longer an art piece after it has sold millions. Hopefully it sells.

    I perceive the question something being an art piece a philosophical question and something being a tool practical one. My opinion is that tool doesn’t allow user to express, which is essential in art creation. Medical scalp in the hands of surgeon is a tool. In the hospital context the scalp has one only purpose – to save lives. Taking the situation into a gallery might give different point of view.

    Thank you for the book introduced. I will take look at it. Here is the link to Petersen’s article. Hopefully you find it interesting



  4. Hi Matti,

    You bring a good point of art as a philosophical question and tool as a practical one. My intuition tells me there are many grey areas in between, and that many new media art projects inhabit there. But I need to go back to Lyas, Shusterman and Dewey to address that properly… I’ll do it soon for my thesis for sure, meanwhile thanks for the good discussion.

    I see some new media art projects as more than tools, but it is difficult to draw analogy from traditional tools. I think the scalpel is not a good analogy, we need to go into art making tools, such as brushes and instruments. I think the analogy of some more “eccentric” musical instrument is probably more useful – let’s imagine, for example, a prepared piano by John Cage, which could be considered a piece of art in its own right (as seen for example in the exhibition I mention in section 4.5 here: ), and also be used for performances and creating new pieces of music.

    Also I am not sure that “abc…xyz” could be dismissed as art just because it sold millions. Walter Benjamin’s “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” might shed some light on this topic (if we adapt the mechanical logic to a digital one).

    Nice paper by Petersen, I’ve added it to my e-library. It draws a lot from Shusterman’s Pragmatist Aesthetics, a book I find very useful. You can check all my philosophy/aesthetics-related books/papers here:

    Most of them were suggested during Philosophy and Aesthetics of Art and Juha Varto’s courses during my doctoral studies at TaiK. Highly recommended courses! Any chance of seeing you around for further studies? 😉

    All the best,

  5. Thank you for the links you added. Also, starting to use Zotero in my research work seems reasonable thing to do.

    Good luck with your thesis. I am exited to see and hear your outcomes and give into a further discussion next time we meet. Meanwhile let the (re)search go on : )



  6. You’re welcome Matti! If you’re checking Zotero, I recommend you also check Mendeley and evaluate what fits best on your workflow. A discussion on that can be found here:

    All the best,