On Art as Experience and User Experience Design

Some lessons I’m taking from my art practice into my UX design career.

In 2015 I embarked on a long distance hike on the ridge of the Balkan mountain range, crossing Bulgaria from the border with Serbia to the Black sea. The trail is about 600 km. It is a famous one in the country with hundreds of people completing it in summer.

On the ridge of the Balkan mountain, the rocky peak in the distance is Golyam Koupen, 2169 m.

We started with a plan, how many days we would walk, where we would sleep and on which date we would see the sea. Pretty much on the second day the plan fell through. We took a day off to recuperate before continuing on the trail. By the end of that first week we had met other hikers and spent some time walking and talking together. All the people we’ve met had the same goal: to reach the sea. But most of them had a very different mindset and soon I amused myself by sharing my view and watching their reaction. Because of our quickly failed plan, I knew I won’t have the time (enough days before a scheduled trip to Germany) to finish the hike and see the sea. Of course there were other 10 000 things that could go wrong: for once, it could have turned out I didn’t have the physical and mental strength to finish. But assuming everything went according to plan, still I wouldn’t be able to complete it. And this blew people’s minds. No one I talked to could understand why I would walk, why I would take another step on the path if I knew I wouldn’t finish it. I walked for 23 days, about 400 km on the ridge of the mountain, it was one of the best experiences of my life; then a car ride took me back to the beginning, for about 4 hours.

Why am I telling you this story? Because it has stuck with me and was the first time I consciously embraced the process rather than obsessing about a hypothetical goal. I saw the trees and not the forest.

I am an artist and as artists do, I did turn this hiking experience into an artwork. At the beginning of the hike, the tradition is for people to take two small stones, keep one as keepsake and throw the other in the Black sea. I showed both stones in an exhibition, as a symbol of my failure.

What defines a failure and what defines an object of art? The walk and the stones are both parts of the same artwork. Before and after the hike, my artistic practice has been focused on experience, repetition & remembrance with their innate possibilities of overcoming inherited rigid perceptions.

And so I see art as an experience for the artist and the observer. It is not merely an object but the accumulation of experiences. As the philosopher John Dewey describes it in Art as Experience, it is an intensified kind of experience that shows us a new possibility and has the potential to transform us.

“Life itself consists of phases in which the organism falls out of step with the march of surrounding things and then recovers unison with it — either through effort or by some happy chance. And, in a growing life, the recovery is never mere return to a prior state, for it is enriched by the state of disparity and resistance through which it has successfully passed. […] Life grows when a temporary falling out is a transition to a more extensive balance of the energies of the organism with those of the conditions under which it lives.”

My artistic practice has been concerned with embracing those cyclic processes where the experience is as important as the final product. I focus on repetitive actions & movements. Trusting the iterative process with its divergent and convergent stages of cumulation and recognition, creates a structure where an artwork is never finished. It leads to momentary glimpses of clarity and shine a light in the direction I have to take. This breaks the narrative of failure & success allowing for continuous growth.

This might sound all very serious, but if I learned anything from my art practice is to not take myself too seriously. That’s the space where the magic happens. I don’t believe that I can change the world or people’s minds with my art, I do not intend to try. I see myself as a facilitator of experiences. I create the conditions and necessary frameworks for an experience to occur.

What does this all have to do with UX design? If we think about it there are things to be learned and translated from art to UX and vice versa. For once, they both operate in the same space: of creating experiences. They are both muddling through the messy process of endless possibilities, trusting that there will be glimpses of clarity and embracing the idea of failure by choosing a path to take.

Bibliography:

John, Dewey. Art as Experience. Perigee Books, 1980.

If you are interested in the intersection of art and UX design, stay tuned. This is only part one in my exploration of the topic.

You can see my art practice at: https://cargocollective.com/ivakirova

Artist-turned-UX designer. https://www.ivakirova.com/

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