Providing museum visitors with virtual-reality headsets or having holograms strut down the runway might guarantee clicks or likes, but such things certainly don’t ensure the success of an institution or event. In recent years, the art of catching the public’s attention, and keeping it, has become undeniably challenging.

The key to a deeper level of engagement, whether at a theatre or in the gallery, is a combination of technology and interactivity. Technologies such as virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) offer audiences a more enriched experience, but simply using them to fashion an Instagram-worthy installation makes them redundant almost immediately. On the other hand, confronting people with a mountain of data to sift through can lead to disengagement.

People enjoy interacting with art rather than just being confronted with it

What is needed is a measured approach, considerate of the relationship between human and computer. The ultimate goal is to achieve a deep level of engagement by developing strong emotional connections. In a society where face-to-face interaction continues to diminish and our relationships with smartphones constantly take the place of physical contact, interactive technology holds great potential for establishing connection and facilitating exploration.

Archive Dreaming by Refik Anadol at Istanbul’s Salt Galata invites visitors to enter an immersive space where they can sift through light and data with the touch of a screen to curate their own unique exhibitions. Photo Refik Anadol

In an exhibition of work by French artist Pierre Soulages in Switzerland, organized jointly by the Fondation Gandur pour l’Art and EPFL, the team at EPFL+ECAL Lab staged two interventions designed to stimulate audience interaction. One of the two, Into the Black, included a series of VR headsets positioned as if they were public binoculars at a scenic location. On peering into the binoculars, visitors encountered and were able to explore a short virtual scenario based on three significant elements found in paintings by Soulages: matter, light, and light as matter.

Introducing the ideas behind Soulages’ work to visitors before they engaged with his art in the flesh, so to speak, was crucial to Nicolas Henchoz, founder and director of the EPFL+ECAL Lab. The paintings, many of which are large canvases entirely in black, can be difficult for viewers to understand. Henchoz believes that staging the experience is vital. ‘Providing cognitive input and an emotional experience has a significant impact on museum visitors,’ he says. ‘We tested this with virtual reality but also in an immersive installation, Colors in Black. We had to be very careful in presenting the two parts.’

Visitors to Colors in Black, an immersive installation by EPFL+ECAL Lab, look at a painting by Soulages in two phases: first by exploring the relation between colour and light on an interactive screen, and then by viewing the real painting, subconsciously ‘guided’ by their prior experiences. Photo Joël Tettamanti

From a study of more than 140 people, he discovered that the two parts must be phased: first cognitive, then emotional. ‘When we bring the cognitive content into the emotional sequence – mixing everything in a spectacular 3D environment, for instance – users lose most of the meaning, because their brains absorb only the sensations. VR and new digital experiments can be very useful, but we must learn how best to use them to improve the experience and, above all, to increase the visitor’s relationship with the art pieces. The installation is a tool, not a goal in itself. You use VR to turn the cognitive into the emotional, so that when people face the art piece, they have a greater understanding of what they’re seeing.’

It is the active participant – not the passive viewer – that gains a deeper understanding of an artist’s work and forms an emotional connection with it. Museums and galleries the world over are using technology to prompt interaction. In Brazil, for example, curators at the Pinacoteca de São Paulo set out to address the discouraging statistic that 72 per cent of Brazilians have never been inside a museum. Their conclusion was that people might enjoy interacting with art rather than just being confronted with it. In a collaboration with technology giant IBM, the Brazilian museum created The Voice of Art, an app that lets people literally talk to art.

The experience of art must be first cognitive, then emotional

Visitors are encouraged to ask the app questions, which trigger a myriad of responses developed by curators and researchers. Instead of listening to what is sometimes a dry and fact-laden audio guide, visitors can engage with art on a more personal level. Kids can ask the young man in Cândido Portinari’s 1934 painting, Mestico, if he likes soccer or inquire of the sombre woman in Almeida Júnior’s Saudade why she looks so sad.

The act of exploration is another way to break down institutional barriers. Preserved in the depths of many institutions are archives that for years have been accessible only to staff, as only a mere fraction of collections are exhibited due to space constraints. While many museums are taking steps to digitize their collections, some are finding ways for visitors to interact with their archives.

Archive Dreaming by media artist Refik Anadol is an immersive installation housed in Istanbul’s Salt Galata, which calls itself a ‘venue for innovation’. Anadol used machine-learning algorithms to sort through 1,700,000 documents and to make connections among them. The user-driven installation invites visitors to enter an immersive space where they can sift through light and data with the touch of a screen. By encouraging interaction, the installation allows for a reframing of memory, history and culture beyond linear historical narrative or the intentions of the curators, giving visitors a chance to shape their own understanding of what they choose to see.

Combining technology and interactivity needs a measured approach, considerate of the relationship between human and computer

The need for engagement goes beyond a thirst for knowledge. It can also be seen as a shift in a society plagued by a growing sense of disconnection. In a 2015 study carried out at Brigham Young University, researchers found that a subjective feeling of loneliness increases the risk of death by 26 per cent. Concurrent with the rise of social media is a need to build relationships elsewhere, often in unexpected places.

Chorus, an installation by British electronic musician Matthew Herbert at the Powerhouse in Sydney, helps people feel as though they are part of something bigger than themselves. Inside a sound booth, a sign invites visitors to sing one note into a microphone dangling from the ceiling. Leaving the booth, they find themselves in a room surrounded by sheaths of translucent fabric and filled with a chorus of voices, all singing different notes. An online platform lets people across the globe add their voices and listen to the resulting chorus at different times of the day. Visitors can even adjust the chorus according to the performance of the stock market or to changes in temperature.

VR and new digital experiments in installations are tools, not goals in themselves

The use of online platforms to initiate a sense of community resonated in Xavier Veilhan’s Echoes of the Studio, which highlighted the French Pavilion at the 2017 Venice Biennale. A collaboration comprising Veilhan, Deezer and BETC, Echoes of the Studio gave users all over the world access to a recording studio where 70 international musicians played and recorded live. The interface allowed users to interact with a digital landscape of monochromatic lines that swirled across the screen. A click was all you needed to engage with the assemblage and hear the sounds of instruments being recorded in the studio.

In the age of the internet, the world is your audience. For the French Pavilion at the 2017 Venice Biennale, Xavier Veilhan created a physical music studio and a web-based platform that live-streamed recordings supported by dynamic graphics. Photo Giacomo Cosua

Whether it means employing technology to give more control to museum visitors or forming mixed-reality environments for user participation, the aim is to stimulate engagement and to forge strong connections through personalized experiences. Although our world is more connected than ever before, we should take the opportunity to reinforce the feeling of connection at all levels.

This article originally appeared in Frame 120. For more in-depth reports on technology for events and insights to the trends shaping spatial experiences, subscribe to Frame magazine or buy the latest issue.