Before I start on my topic Desert Rain which I was being tasked, I will talk about what uncomfortable interactions are. From the article “Uncomfortable Interactions”, I was basically being taught on the idea of what uncomfortable interactions literally is- the benefits, the forms, as well as the tactics.
Through this knowledge, I was fully equipped to understand the reason behind Desert Rain. This article aided me really well in understanding the whole context and purpose behind Desert Rain, and also why the creators even designed it in the first place. Bear with me for the brief yet long summary of the main pointers I sieved out from the article. It is really beneficial to understand the background so that we can see the bigger picture, on how Desert Rain was composed through uncomfortable interactions.
What is uncomfortable Interaction?
Uncomfortable interactions are those that cause a degree of suffering to the user. This may be physical suffering such as physical stress, tiredness or pain, but might also involve mental suffering due to fear and anxiety, either experienced directly or empathically on behalf of others.
This is not to say that the overall aim of such experiences is to create discomfort, but rather that uncomfortable interactions may be a useful ‘means to an end’ – a way of promoting certain other benefits, values or worth as we now discuss.
What are the potential benefits of uncomfortable interactions?
Many of us have a fundamental need for stimulation, arousal, and excitement. As such, this has fuelled the development of extreme forms of entertainment for many years. In our everyday lives, we are increasingly removed from the direct experience of violence and related suffering. Through uncomfortable interactions, we can then enhance entertainment in several ways.
There are mainly three benefits for uncomfortable interactions:
Firstly, physical discomfort may be an important part of thrill. For example, rollercoasters involve extreme accelerations, sudden drops and inversions. In such cases, feelings of thrill may arise from a combination of fearful anticipation, followed by an extreme physical sensation, and then the euphoria of relief at having survived. Such experiences demonstrate a complex relationship between pleasure and suffering that, if carefully designed, may stimulate powerful emotions.
Discomfort may naturally tend to focus the participant’s attention inwards onto their own feelings, increasing the subjective intensity and memorability of the experience. Hence, entertainment actually relies on a sensations as well, rather than just pleasure alone.
Human suffering is a powerful and recurring theme among interactive art works. Uncomfortable interactions may help establish an appropriate tone for engaging with dark themes, demanding a deep personal commitment, and in turn, promoting empathy and respect. Also, interactive artworks tend to provoke interpretation rather than directly giving information. Experiences involving discomfort naturally establish an ambiguous and provocative relationship with their participants: is this meant to be a pleasurable or painful experience?
Widening our perspective, there are important areas of human endeavour in which suffering is related to personal enlightenment, including religious and spiritual practices such as abstinence, fasting, ascetism and mortification of the flesh. Discomfort can be an important factor in self-expression, from the extreme postures and movements in some dance and sports in which the body is seen to be stretched to its limits, through to self-expression through body art such as tattoos and piercings.
Confronting and sharing discomfort may be a powerful social experience. Initiation rituals that involve enduring social or even physical discomfort are to be found in many settings and cultures. Social bonding around discomfort extends to audiences witnessing the public discomfort of others. For example, team development activities in which groups must work together on unusual tasks, which is a challenging physical nature.
What forms can such interactions take?
Such interactions are able to take up in 2 forms:
- Traditional performing arts
- Human–computer interaction (HCI)
Traditional performing arts
The performing arts have always contained elements of discomfort due to their origin in ritual which often included sacrifice. Here are examples to elaborate:]
1.1 . Stelarc Suspension (2012)
A series of performances in which audience members observe his suspended body being moved and controlled by machinery, and in one case remotely controlled his body via electric stimuli
1.2 . Abramović and Ulay’s, Imponderabilia (1977)
Audience had to enter the gallery by pushing through the narrow space created by the naked bodies of the two performers who stood against opposing walls facing each other
1.3 . Marina Abramović’s Rhythm O (1974)
A six-hour performance in which the audience was encouraged to use a series of objects on Abramović’s body that included a gun, a bullet, a pocket knife, an axe, and matches.
Human–computer interaction (HCI)
In its recent turn to the arts and entertainment, HCI has broadened its focus to cover aesthetic and emotional design values associated with the ‘user experience’. Here are examples to elaborate:
2.1. Desert Rain (1997)
This HCI involved militaristic briefings, participants being lost in a virtual world, and then having to decide whether to leave a colleague behind.
2.2. Uncle Roy All Around You (2003)
This HCI led participants to be lost and alone in a city and then required them to take apparently risky decisions such as getting into a strange car as part of an engagement with the themes of trust and surveillance.
2.3. The Meatbook (2007)
This HCI was an interactive artwork that required users to touch and manipulate rotting raw meat.
What tactics can be used to create discomfort?
There are a few main tactics to create discomfort. We can group them under the 4 principle forms of uncomfortable interactions:
- Visceral discomfort
- Cultural discomfort
- Discomfort through control
- Discomfort through intimacy
Visceral refers to those aspects that most directly relate to physical sensation, from the unpleasant feel of materials, to demanding stressful or strenuous movements, to causing pain.
1.1 . Design unpleasant wearables and tangibles
1.2. Encourage strenuous physicality
1.3. Cause pain
Cultural discomfort refers to creating interactions that invoke dark cultural associations.
2.1. Confronting challenging themes and difficult decisions
Confronting participants with difficult decisions involving culturally challenging issues. More generally, the cultural acceptability of material that is considered adult, difficult or vulgar provides a significant for discomfort.
2.2 . Design culturally resonant devices
Cultural associations extend beyond the content of the experience to the form of the interface itself, including to the design of devices.
Discomfort through control
Participants may become uncomfortable when giving up control, or indeed assuming an unusual degree of control.
3.1. Surrender control to the machine
Surrendering control emphasises the frustration inherent in unpredictable control and surprising system responses, while the reverse approach of overly precise control may also create discomfort through extreme compliance.
3.2. Surrender control to other people
Theatrical performances typically involve surrendering control to the performers, which may engender uncomfortable feelings of helplessness, disempowerment, or more neutrally a lack of responsibility.
3.3 . Require participants to take greater control
There is discomfort to be found in assuming greater control of others as this may invoke feelings of power, responsibility, capriciousness or mischief.
Discomfort through intimacy
Intimacy is a tricky business, and offers plenty of scope for engineering discomfort by distorting the social norms around which it is negotiated.
4.1. Isolate people
Denying the comfort of intimacy through isolating people from the social support of friends and family, leaving them alone in an unfamiliar environment is not only disturbing, but it also naturally focuses participants inwardly on their own feelings.
4.2. Establish intimacy with strangers
At the other extreme, intimate encounters with strangers such as performers can be very uncomfortable.
4.3. Employ surveillance and voyeurism
One approach is to emphasise the sense of vulnerability inherent in being surveilled, especially by unseen observers. There is also discomfort to be found in watching others. This may become especially uncomfortable when the voyeur is aware they may also being watched.
These tactics are only applied at particular moments during each experience. We need to remember that discomfort is not the overall goal, but rather a momentary point on a journey.
How does uncomfortable interaction experiences work?
The Renaissance saw the development of the classic five-act performance structure consisting of:
- Rising action
- Falling action
It is the initial framing of the experience (marketing, briefings and queuing) and how this sets up an uncomfortable anticipation from the very outset.
It is the anticipation of discomfort increases as the experience proper begins and suspense gradually builds.
This marks a climactic moment of a particular discomfort in which anticipation turns into actual experience. Two important principles guide the design of this climactic moment. First, it must be transitory, both in terms of being relatively brief compared to the duration of exposition and rising action, but also in that its effects soon pass.
Following the experience of discomfort naturally comes a moment of release or catharsis. This may be associated with feelings of intense pleasure, even euphoria.
Finally, is the critical importance of reflection afterwards which provides opportunities to assimilate the experience of discomfort, share it with others through storytelling, further deepen any new insights, or simply to enjoy the bragging rights of having passed through a rite of passage.
We argue that it is especially important (but often neglected) to design in explicit moments of reflection such as opportunities to meet other participants or acquire documentations such as souvenirs, photos and videos. This is especially true in experiences that make extensive use of isolation, as participants will have had little opportunity to discuss a possibly highly subjective experience with others. Tactics of control and intimacy may be especially applicable here as experienced participants will be in a position to control others and may be able to reflect through doing so.
We note that while discomfort may rise, peak and fall according to this dramatic structure, various forms of discomfort can be experienced throughout and some tactics may be more relevant to particular ‘acts’ that others. Moreover, experiences will often involve multiple peaks in which participants experience successive discomforts, for example successive dilemmas, encounters, physical shocks and so forth.
I have come to the end of introducing what uncomfortable interactions is. Next up, I would be talking about how Desert Rain incorporated uncomfortable interactions into their interactive installation.
What is Desert Rain?
Please refer to my slideshow below for my presentation in class regarding Desert Rain. It would be essential to see through the slides first, before I explain the relevance between Desert Rain and uncomfortable interactions below.
This is the link to my presentation slides:
This is the link for the video URL:
How does Desert Rain relate contextually to what I have learnt on uncomfortable interactions?
After reading up on both Desert Rain and uncomfortable interactions, I then realised that we have all experienced this at some point in time in our lives. Never would I have thought that those experiences were counted as uncomfortable. It was so intriguing, after I realised that it subconsciously affects our inner feelings and thinking without us knowing.
Every time we try out and experience new things, we always look forward to a good experience to remember. That being said, why do we still want to take roller coasters, go to Halloween parties, or even watch a horror movie? This is how uncomfortable interactions come into place. Although we know of the consequences that we would face at the end, presumably scary/anxious/uncomfortable, we would still feel that it is a relatively “good” interaction to experience.
What form of interaction did Desert Rain take?
In Desert Rain, Blast Theory used HCI for the whole experience. From my presentation slides, we could tell that the HCI in Desert Rain covered aesthetic and emotional design values associated with the ‘user experience’.
What benefits were used through uncomfortable interactions in Desert Rain?
Desert Rain made use of all the three benefits of uncomfortable interactions:
As many of us have a fundamental need for stimulation, arousal and excitement, this has fuelled the need of thrill through entertainment. Hence, there were many parts of thrill in this whole interactive installation. One example would be the dark ante-chamber the participants were being led to which they had to leave their coats and put on hooded black jackets. Feelings of thrill would arise from them having a sense of foreboding as they were all stripped to equal identities, not knowing what will happen next. As mentioned above, this feeling of discomfort may naturally tend to focus the participant’s attention inwards onto their own feelings, increasing the subjective intensity and memorability of the experience.
As explained above, human suffering is a powerful and recurring theme among interactive art works, be it physically or mentally. The participants were led to U-shaped cubicles where they enter the virtual world of war, where they immerse themselves into the game. The intensive setting in the game would allow them to experience and engage with real life identities during the war, demanding a deep personal commitment, and in turn, promoting empathy and respect. This feeling of discomfort naturally establish an ambiguous and provocative relationship with their participants, combining both pleasure and pain in the overall experience.
Sociality comes in when the participants went alone a sand corridor to a reconstructed motel room where they were confronted with the real identities and experience of their targets during the game. They were then taught on the real-life stories of their own targets during the times of war. As such, being confronted and the sharing of discomfort between them may be a powerful social experience.
What tactics did Desert Rain use to create discomfort?
Desert Rain also made use of the four principle tactics to create discomfort:
As visceral discomfort is described through designing tangibles, visceral discomfort would be felt when the participants stepped through the rain curtain after the game ends.
Cultural discomfort refers to creating interactions that invoke dark cultural associations. This discomfort kicks in when the participants were led to the reconstructed motel room where they were confronted with the real identities and experience of their targets during the game.
Discomfort through control
Participants may become uncomfortable when giving up control, or indeed assuming an unusual degree of control. This was being implemented right at the start of the whole experience, where the participants were told to put on hooded jackets, stripping them of their identities, giving everyone equal exact likeness.
Discomfort through intimacy
One form of discomfort through intimacy would be to isolate people. The participants were all being isolated when they were led to the U-shaped cubicles where they start to play the game in the virtual world. Denying the comfort of intimacy through isolating people from the social support of friends and family, leaving them alone in an unfamiliar environment is not only disturbing, but it also naturally focuses participants inwardly on their own feelings.
These tactics are only applied at particular moments during each experience as you could see from my examples. Each experience only made use of one tactic. This is because creating discomfort is not the overall goal, but rather a momentary point on a journey.
How does uncomfortable interaction experiences work in Desert Rain?
Yet again, Desert Rain made use of all the development of the classic five-act performance structure.
- Exposition: Briefings and instructions done at the start of the whole interactive installation, inside the dark ante-chamber.
- Rising Action: Participants were led to the U-shaped cubicles where they start to play the game in the virtual world.
- Climax: Participants were given only 20min to capture their allocated targets in desert landscapes, bunkers and motels.
- Falling action: Participants were led along a sand corridor to a reconstructed motel room
- Dénouement: Participants were confronted with the real identities and experiences of their targets.
While discomfort may rise, peak and fall according to this dramatic structure, various forms of discomfort can be experienced throughout and some tactics may be more relevant to particular ‘acts’ than others. Moreover, experiences will often involve multiple peaks in which participants experience successive discomforts, for example, successive dilemmas and encounters during the gameplay itself.
In conclusion, I feel that inputting uncomfortable interactions in an installation is a very ingenious idea to allow participants to remember the experience wholeheartedly. Personally, I just challenged myself to remember the unforgettable experiences I had during my life for the past 22 years, and I realised that they were the ones which had uncomfortable interactions in them. One example would be my National Service days, where we experienced physical and mental stress. However, it was only through these uncomfortable interactions which made us think more, and grow more as a person, giving ourselves more enlightenment.
Therefore, uncomfortable interaction would be something that I would want to include in my future works, as I believe that it would be a deep impact on my audience.