Ben McKelahan revealing a print made with his interactive "Drawing Machine"

Ben McKelahan revealing a print made with his interactive “Drawing Machine” (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic)

All art is interactive — at least, in a sense. When you observe, consider, even dismiss a work, you have engaged with it on some level.

Interactive art, however, is different — a notion made all the more evident by food coloring-stained hands, a bowl full of used shaving cream and a homemade contraption comprised of connected PVC pipes that looks like it belongs more at a high school science fair than in an art gallery. Enter Ben McKelahan.

When I first spotted a Brooklyn Brainery listing for the upcoming three-part workshop titled “Make Interactive Art,” two things came to mind. The first: What is interactive art? After all, isn’t all art interactive? And the second: This looks messy — McKelahan’s profile photo shows him covered in bright neon paints; I want in.

So I sat down with the 27-year-old Washington state native turned Clinton Hill transplant at St. Paul’s Lutheran Church in Williamsburg to learn more. McKelahan, a Lutheran pastor, began his artistic career with an interest in theater production in high school. It wasn’t until he attended seminary that he started exploring other art forms, for which he credits his theological studies. Three summers ago, McKelahan received a fellowship from the Fund for Theological Education to travel around the country, visiting organizations that create community through collaborative art. It was during his encounter with the Freestyle Arts Association in New York that he experienced what he describes as “a huge moment of inspiration.”

“That was a huge moment of realization,” he explains. “The community building, the group effort, communal creation that I had experienced in theater could be done in other art forms as well.”

Since his move to New York last December, McKelahan has regularly crafted interactive art projects and transported them to public spaces throughout the city, from Zuccotti Park’s Occupy Wall Street encampment to the park just blocks away from his church, to where we soon headed with heavy bags of art materials.

McKelahan agreed to re-create a previous project with me for a firsthand look at interactive art making. Together we constructed his print-making “Drawing Machine,” using his collection of labeled PVC pipes, string, a pen, a board and a Nalgene water bottle that was used as a weight. When he mentioned that he had previously studied physics, it all made sense.

Much of McKelahan’s work focuses on finding ways to include a “relational” aspect. For this project, I was assigned the task of jotting down “suggested donations” on the backs of the prints that participants made and took with them. Rather than asking for tips, we asked that people give the artwork to someone else (e.g., “Suggested Donation: Give this artwork to the last person who made you laugh”).

Suggested donations for the backs of prints

Suggested donations for the backs of prints

We spent the next hour or so inviting passersby to come and make art with us. I was nervous — it was a sticky, humid evening and time for the post-workday rush home. What if we had no takers? But nerves quickly gave way to laughs, conversations and splatterings of shaving cream. Most people broke their hurried New Yorker stride to peer over at us, smile and if we were lucky, participate. And it was only mildly messy.

*   *   *

Ben McKelahan with the "Drawing Machine"

Ben McKelahan with the “Drawing Machine” (click to enlarge)

Jen Ortiz: How do you define interactive art?

Ben McKelahan: For me, interactive art is an invitation for other people to create.

JO: What differentiates it from other forms of art?

BM: That it’s not the artist creating and saying, “Look at what I’ve done.” It’s saying, “Here’s something cool; why don’t you make something out of it?” When I prepare interactive art, for me the art is, how do I get other people excited to make something? That’s where the artistry comes in. The visual product, that’s what the passerby creates.

JO: And what makes for a successful work of interactive art?

BM: I have this acronym — NEFAR, which I like because it’s kind of goofy sounding. There’s five elements in there; the first is that it has to be noticeable. If no one notices that you’ve got this really cool interactive art thing going on, no one’s going to interact with it. That could be through size, color, noise, movements, whatever it takes to get people to say, “What is that?”

It has to be easy. It’s really important to me that anyone can do this type of art. I don’t have a visual-arts background, which means I have no training in this. And if I can do it, anyone can do it. And that’s a point of pride for me.

The other elements: fun, affirming and relational.

JO: How do you come up with the projects? 

BM: Often I have a theological question that I want to explore. Then I think, what’s fun? What do I enjoy doing? Specifically, what do I enjoy that’s really simple and easy and anyone can do? Blowing bubbles, bouncing a ball, breaking things. And then I go, okay, there’s this fun, simple activity that anyone can do. How can that contribute to art?

McKelahan’s notebook with blueprint for the project

McKelahan’s notebook with blueprint for the project (click to enlarge)

JO: How did you come up with the project we’re doing today?

BM: I have a friend who does these amazing art salons in different venues, galleries, studios. She was doing something in a bar, and she was like, “You should do something.” I really wanted to do something with beer, making art somehow, but beer is pretty monochrome. I just couldn’t really come up with anything. And my wife kept pointing out that people aren’t going to want to pour out their beer.

But I bought all of these PVC pipes, and I stayed up until, like, two in the morning, and I kept assembling and tinkering with it and eventually I made this thing. I looked at it and thought, I’ve seen this before. I saw this at the Exploratorium science museum in San Francisco when I was five years old. It’s called the “Drawing Machine,” and basically it’s a four-point pendulum that has a board attached to the bottom of it with paper on top, and there’s a static Sharpie. When you push the board, the pendulum swings in these four directions and draws cool patterns. I was like, that’s awesome! But I don’t want to just rip off the Exploratorium.

Just fiddling around on the internet, I discovered you could make really cool art out of shaving cream and food coloring and paper. Well, maybe I can combine the shaving cream stuff with the “Drawing Machine” stuff, and sure enough, I could. So the board moves around on this pendulum, except I put a layer of shaving cream on top, and the participants get to drip the food-coloring colors they want. There’s this static pen that just rests on top, and participants can push the board; as they push it, it makes cool patterns. Then you take a piece of paper and lay it down on the shaving cream; when you scrape off the shaving cream, it makes a print.

JO: Tell me a little bit more about how the Brooklyn Brainery class will be structured.

BM: The first week will be me introducing people to interactive art that has already been done and talking about the different types of interactive art that exist. There’s a spectrum of art from, as you say, someone who paints alone in their studio and then goes to a gallery and hangs it up on the wall and says, “Look at what I have done,” to sort of complete anarchy where everyone has a paintbrush. And so we’ll look at that spectrum, and I’ll locate myself somewhere in that, and people are free to locate themselves wherever they’d like. We’ll look at particular interactive projects that fall closer to the interactive art I work with, through the lens of, “What are the elements that make for good interactive art?” So the idea is to give people a language and a framework for thinking about the elements that go into a successful interactive art piece.

The second week is brainstorming. I’ll ask people to come in with a few ideas: things that are fun, themes they want to explore, places they’d want to do interactive art. Where there’s excitement for ideas, we’ll form groups around it. Three or four people teaming up to say, “Yeah, we want to make this happen.” And we’ll think through the process, like what are the supplies they’ll need? The homework is: whatever they have to get ready to actually do this thing, that group needs to get together and prepare.

And the third day is us actually going to Prospect Park and doing whatever the group comes up with.

A print the author made with the "Drawing Machine"

A print the author made with the “Drawing Machine”

JO: A lot of artists have some sort of message or meaning assigned to a work. Does a work of interactive art have a meaning in the beginning and then it changes? Or is the meaning in how people are interacting with it?

BM: It depends on the piece. Interactive art is a tool — it can be used to any end. I use it to try to communicate to people that their self-expression has value inherently. But you could also use it to sell beer.

There is, to a certain extent, in the medium an egalitarian element, but even that can be played with. You can have interactive art that has very little room for creative self-expression on the part of the participant, or you can let people do whatever and it’s much more exciting.

JO: What happens to the meaning when the interaction is over? What happens at the end?

BM: For me, the art is not the final product. To me, the art is the experience of people making art together. There often is a byproduct of that invitation to create. A lot of the interactive art, the stuff that’s created, I throw away because that’s not the point. And otherwise it just clutters my apartment. If someone wants it, I’ll give it to them.

McKelahan’s class, Make Interactive Art, is happening this month at the Brooklyn Brainery — but is sold out. For more details or to request that they repeat the class, visit

Jen Ortiz is a graduate student at NYU's Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute and freelance writer from New York City. Follow her on Twitter at @jenortiznyc or at

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