Shine on

With the growing trend for luxurious installations in hotels, private houses and corporate HQs, is interaction design moving out of the techno ghetto and redefining itself closer to architecture, product design and fine art?

The world of digital and interactive installations is growing up and getting serious. Or at least its budgets are. Over the past few years we’ve seen an increase in high quality – and high cost – installations for a wide range of corporate clients. An early harbinger of the trend came back in 2004, in the shape of Greyworld’s monumental piece, The Source, at the London
Stock Exchange and since then we’ve seen stunning work in the form of Troika’s Cloud installation for BAA at Heathrow’s Terminal 5, to Art+Com’s Kinetic Sculpture for BMW in Munich.

What we’re witnessing here is a long term shift in the centre of gravity of interaction design. It’s moving away from a concern with media, away from the idea that interaction design is the offspring of the screen-based moving image tradition, that its proper concerns are with agency and narrative and the politics of authorship and audience. And it’s moving towards a different tradition which looks to architecture and sculpture for guidance and where the key concerns are for space and form and materials and craftsmanship.

So what’s been gained, or indeed lost, in all of this? Does a concern
with materials betray a dangerous tendency towards the decorative? Is
it all a load of highly priced bling? Or has interaction design finally found its natural place in the world, a sculptural, architectonic practice closer to product or interior design than the time-based narrative tradition?

Six leading interaction designers, James Clar; Jussi Angelselva from Art+Com; Keri Elmsly from United Visual Artists; Hannes Koch from rAndom International; and Eva Rucki and Sebastien Noel from Troika share their thoughts – and examples of new work – over the following pages.

rAndom International: Swarm Light, experimental light installation
rAndom International was founded in 2002 by Stuart Wood, Flo Ortkrass and Hannes Koch while at the Royal College of Art. Since graduating they have created an impressive body of interactive installation work.

“If you look at some of our pieces, like the You Fade To Light OLED installation or the Swarm Light, at first glance they do seem to have a lot of ‘bling’,” says Koch. “If one looks in detail, however, there’s a huge difference from the ‘shininess’ traditionally associated with high-end interiors: our work mostly consists of raw circuit boards, bare components and pure and untreated materials used with the minimum possible excess. The aesthetics are entirely dominated by what processes are used to make the work function in the intended way. We’re not using marble or other rare materials here. Our biggest single concession to aesthetics would be the use of Corian, a high-end acrylic material or, as with Swarm, using polished brass instead of simple steel rods.

“The Swarm Light was a big endeavour for us; the entire hardware, software, content and electronics were developed from scratch in order to get the behaviour of swarm movement translated into an object in exactly the way we wanted. [The Swarm light consists of a ‘cube’ of suspended brass rods fitted with LEDs that react to sounds.] We see it as part of an investigation into the emotional and physical engagement of the viewer with objects and environments. Our work is developing in the direction of architecture and increasingly installation art; not because we want to be pretentious artists, but because the art world respects highly experimental, investigative, speculative work that’s creatively driven without any strings attached. In the end, we value creative control and freedom above anything, so the art context is really the environment where we get that the most.”

United Visual Artists: Canopy, light sculpture, Maple Leaf Square, Toronto
United Visual Artists is a London-based studio of artists and designers who create architectural interaction design and live performances.

“Interaction design can perhaps be considered a tool that can be used by practitioners of architecture, design or art, rather than a separate discipline that competes with them,” says UVA’s Keri Elmsly. “If you show someone a photograph on a brand new iPhone the day after it launched, they react to the phone, not the photograph. Once the iPhone has been out for a few years and everyone has one, it becomes invisible and people can respond to the photograph. As interaction technology becomes commonplace, works using it should gradually leave the ‘techno art ghetto’, to be replaced by other work further along the technology curve.

“With Canopy the idea was to use mass production and digital fabrication methods to create a work that in some way mirrored nature, that felt organic despite the precise fabrication of its parts. We thought of the experience of walking through a forest underneath a canopy of leaves and set out to bring some of that feeling into the sculpture. The result is a mesh of cellular modules that ‘grow’ over the sidewalk. During the day sunlight filters through the cells to the sidewalk, creating a complex layering of reflection across the length of the work. After dark we wanted to use animation to generate cycles of growth through the work. When you stand underneath it you
see small particles of light come to life, expand and move, until eventually they fade away.

“We don’t consciously set out to position works in any particular way – people position the works according to context. If your work is commissioned by a new building it’s architecture; by a brand it’s design; by a gallery it’s fine art. The strong work transcends these distinctions and connects with the viewer regardless of set and setting.”

Troika: Shoal, corridor installation, Corus building, Toronto
Troika is a multi-disciplinary art and design studio that, since 2003, has focused on merging art, design and architecture in various forms.

“Our work is typically at the intersection of these three areas and most often gets commissioned in an art context,” says Troika’s Eva Rucki. “I think part of what fascinates people about our work is that it’s so multi- layered, drawing on those different areas. Modern life is quite complex, different formats and platforms surface every day – so why wouldn’t that be reflected in art and design?”

“People appreciate the ideas and sense of humour behind the work and enjoy the simple and often surprising results – they’re less concerned if they are looking at a piece of art, design or architecture,” adds Sebastien Noel. “Whilst we use technology in various formats in our work, hardly any of it is ‘interactive’ in the classical sense. It’s part of our tool box as well as animation, engineering, product design and graphic design, and whilst we think it would be artificial to exclude it, it’s by no means the driving force.
“We’ve developed several large scale installations for cultural, public and corporate clients. The biggest difference is whether an experienced art curator is on board, which was the case with our Shoal installation in Toronto, commissioned by the city’s Economic Development Cooperation. If a client contracts a curator to advise on the work, then that says a lot about their attitude to the project. Shoal was informed by Toronto’s waterfront –
a constant battleground between nature and the man-made environment. [It features 467 iridescent ‘fish’ that hang from the ceiling of a 50m corridor in the city’s Corus building and appear to ‘swim’ in unison.] We were fascinated by the natural phenomena around Lake Ontario, particularly the currents on the water’s surface that resemble a shoal of fish.”

Art+Com: Mobility installation, World Expo, Shanghai
Art+Com was founded in 1988 by Joachim Sauter, a leading interactive artist, designer and teacher at the University of the Arts in Berlin and UCLA. The studio recently wowed audiences with its Kinetic Sculpture at the BMW museum in Munich, a grid of spheres suspended over a deep two-storey space which constantly reconfigured itself into different 3D forms.

“I think it’s confusing to talk about ‘interaction design’ with its roots in early motion studies, ergonomics and human-computer interaction,” says Jussi Ängeslevä, creative director at Art+Com. “‘New media art/design’ is a better term, referring to things that use digital technologies to create experiential spaces that may or may not be interactive. Artists coming from new media, traditionally separated from the contemporary art elite, are now exhibiting across both scenes without contradiction. Many people are also creating seamless experiences and celebrating the underlying technology by exposing the computer parts and cables as a part of the aesthetic of the work, where the technology is there as an enabler, but not as a central focus. This is good for designing work for the public space – work that needs to exist in an architectural frame of reference, rather than in a white cube.

“A case in point is Mobility, our seven metre wide dynamic installation for the medical technology company, Otto Bock, shown at the World Expo in Shanghai. It’s made of 100 prosthetic hands holding mirrors and controlled by motors. The hands swivel the mirrors to reflect a beam of light onto the wall, creating an evolving 3D light animation which eventually forms the Chinese character for ‘movement’. We’ve been looking at ways of using computation in design to make it more feasible to create poetic experiences, while communicating the values of our client – here we looked at some of their products, prosthetics, for inspiration.”


James Clar: Soundwave sculpture, Rolex Tower lobby, Dubai
James Clar currently works in Dubai having graduated from the Interactive Telecommunications Program at New York University in 2004. For him, questions about where to position interaction design, whether within architecture, design, or the fine arts, get a straightforward response. “I’m an artist,” he says. “I started in the ‘new media’ art scene and have shifted, or evolved, into the fine arts.

A lot of my earlier work dealt with how media and technology ‘work’; these days I deal with how media and technology ‘affect’.

“Technology is constantly being filtered down and interaction design is about using new technologies, understanding how a human will interface with it. In the late 90s and early 2000s there was a renaissance in interactive media art because the tools became cheaper and the internet allowed us to share information on how to work them. So there was a mass group of people who explored these technologies, creating various experiments and systems with it. Now the initial fascination with this technology is over, we can approach it more maturely and develop things that are less about the system and more about the content.

“Soundwave is a sculpture that I created for the Rolex Tower sky-scraper in Dubai,” Clar continues. “What was nice is that I was given complete freedom to concept what I wanted. I thought about how Rolex is a company based around time; so wouldn’t it be interesting to freeze something in time? By freezing the soundwave of someone saying ‘Rolex Tower’ and making it into a sculpture I created something solid from something invisible and momentary. For the residential lobby I also created a wall piece, Order Chaos Order, based on a surface plane that goes from flat, to deformed, and back to flat again. This manipulates the light in the room, creating geometric shadow.”

Andy Cameron is interactive creative director at Wieden+Kennedy in London. He has 20 years experience in interactive art and design and continues to exhibit his installations, most recently in Decode at the V&A.

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