Ever heard of using discomfort as a tool to design an interaction? As bizarre as it sounds, let me introduce to you this thought-provoking interactive art, named:
By Thrill Laboratory
ABOUT THRILL LABORATORY
Thrill Laboratory is an organisation of people from different fields of study- scientists, artists, designers, technologists, and engineers. Although they are niche players in their specialised aspect, they all share the same passion for experimentation. Their vision is to be dedicated to the practical pursuit of creating, producing, and examining new forms of thrilling experience.
However, no organisations can thrive without a leader. And hence, the person behind Thrill Laboratory is none other than Thrill Engineer Professor Brendan Walker.
WALKER AS AN ARTIST
Walker is a new media artist whose work revolves around interactive installations. His works of art are inspired by many different elements and subjects, from paintings to war.
The term “Thrill Engineer” refers to a person who is able to sensitively construct and control a thrilling experience. As such, Walker concentrates on the individual, focusing on the interrelationships between subjective creativity and objective engineering.
WALKER’S THEME & CONTEXT
Walker believes in creating a more inventive and thrilling experience for the audience, to explore links between pleasure, arousal, performance, and emotions.
The context behind his works aims at the sociology, psychology, and physiology of being human, which is what interactive installations are all about. This made me interested and curious about his work as I wanted to see how he made use of participation between humans (the audience) to make art come to life.
To further understand him and his work, let’s look at the interactive art that I have chosen as mentioned above, Breathless.
WHAT IS BREATHLESS
Breathless is an interactive experience inspired by Fragonard’s Swing, as known as “The Happy Accidents of the Swing”, an 18th-century oil painting by Jean-Honoré Fragonard in the Wallace Collection in London.
Breathless combines elements of voyeurism, abandonment and breath control to power a ride. It features a motorised swing controlled by breathing data collected from specially developed WiFi gas mask respirators. Audience members progress through the roles of Spectator, Rider, and Controller. They may be forced to watch the pleasure of a lover being manipulated by a stranger’s breathing – heard publicly amplified – or face the awkwardness of controlling a stranger themselves.
This is the brief walkthrough of the interactive art:
- Participants join the queue and start off as the Spectator.
- Spectator is fitted with the gas mask, standing at the entrance to watch the whole interactive art.
- Rider and Controller already have their gas masks on, and the Rider is invited to sit on the swing in darkness.
- Controller sits in a chair beside the Rider under a spotlight.
[Interaction formally starts]
- Amplified breathing of the Controller can be heard which synchronises with the movement of the swing for 2 minutes; Intensity of the Controller’s inhale pulls the swing backward and exhale pushes the swing frontwards.
- Spotlight changes its direction to the Rider and sounds of breathing are now changed to Rider.
- Rider takes over the control of his/her ride and Controller is led away from the chair for another 2 minutes.
- Spotlight extinguishes.
[Interaction formally ends]
- Next participant is invited to join as a new Spectator; Rider is moved to the chair to become the Controller; Controller leaves.
Let’s take a look at the interactive art in this short video to understand it visually:
HOW BREATHLESS WAS BEING MADE
I was very amazed at the technologies that were being used in this whole setup. It might look like a simple installation but I was convinced that there must be a lot of behind-the-scenes thought process and preparation. After some research, I found out some of the hardware and software being used, which were really intricate.
Walker used Wi-Fi respirators, which were based on NATO Gas Mask filters. They use microprocessors to monitor the breathing flow rates of multiple subjects and broadcast them to a central computer. The swing is powered by a motor and pulley system.
The motor is controlled using an encoder and power management unit linked to the central computer. Motor position is linked to the volume of air moving through a chosen respirator. If breathing frequency is in harmony with the swing, then swing height increases.
Like I mentioned earlier, Walker’s works of art are inspired by many different elements and subjects. He drew stories from army gas mask drills conducted during the Second World War, which explains the gas masks used in Breathless, and then incorporates it into Fragonard’s Swing painting which we observe as the lady on a swing ride.
TECHNIQUES USED IN WALKER’S WORK
Although each experience in Thrill Laboratory’s work is different- different contributors, audience, venue, they all carry the same aim of creating and examining new forms of thrilling experience.
There are three types of thrill techniques as seen apparently in Breathless. Firstly, it is the thrill of the Spectator waiting for his/her turn- looking at the Rider to understand how helpless the Rider is. This build-up of excitement will undoubtedly give the Spectator an adrenaline rush.
Secondly, it is the thrill of the Rider taking the ride- he/she has no control over the intensity of the ride as it relies solely on the Controller’s breathing. However, the Rider would be able to control his/her ride after the breathing rights is passed on to him/her after 2 minutes. This sudden switch of roles will surely cause disorder to the Rider’s mind, from being helpless to being able to take control of him/herself.
Lastly, it would be the thrill of the Controller controlling the Rider’s ride- he/she has total command of the whole interactive art. Previously being the Rider, he/she knows how the current Rider is feeling at that moment in time. As such when The Controller is given the rights and opportunity to do it on the Rider, he/she is free to control the intensity of the ride, indirectly controlling the thrill of the Rider.
A very simple procedure yet so provocative and alluring, right? Here are a few real-time visuals of the whole interactive art:
CONSEQUENCES OF BREATHLESS
Ultimately, the main approach used by Walker in Breathless, is something special called “Uncomfortable Interaction”. In short, uncomfortable interaction means using discomfort to design art, and at the same time giving a good user experience. One might think that to have a good experience, the art installation must be pleasant and serene. However, Breathless is a piece of evidence that discomfort through interaction can be satisfying and enjoyable as well, or even better.
There are mainly 3 consequences of using uncomfortable interaction in an interactive art. They are:
Entertainment is on-going throughout the whole interaction- from the Spectator, to the Rider, to the Controller. It can be viewed as a taking roller coaster ride. While waiting for our turn to board the roller coaster, we can see the whole ride above our eyes while queueing. Finally it would be our turn to take the ride, and we go through whatever we just saw, experiencing the roller coaster drops while screaming our lungs out. Finally, once the ride is over, we feel relieved, but fulfilled at the same time! This whole process brings about entertainment.
Enlightenment is the different thrills that the Spectator, Rider, and Controller experience throughout the whole process. Those thrills indirectly establish an appropriate tone for engaging with dark themes, demanding a deep personal commitment between the three of them. Only after the Rider has finished his/her turn, he/she would be able to understand the discomfort from it, understanding the rationale of the ride. Those participants queueing up will never comprehend until experiencing it first hand during their turn. The controller, on the other hand, has already gone through the role of being a Spectator and Rider. He/she will start to question him/herself: Is this meant to be a pleasurable or painful experience?
Lastly, sociality is where the three of them promote empathy and respect between each other as all of them went through the same level of discomfort during the whole process. Such social experience and initiation by sharing discomfort creates a powerful social experience and synergy amongst themselves.
To end off, I must say that not all interactive art must be complicated and fancy. What is more important is the techniques and ideation behind the whole setup. Breathless proved to me that a simple interactive art is able to bring about so much perspective in the human endeavor.
Also, a simple interactive art might not be simple to do; it isn’t correlated. As seen in Breathless, the amount of preparation needed and the whole concept behind is pretty demanding and heavy. However, the end product is so impressive. Hence, this is why I chose Breathless for my example of an inspiring and thought-provoking interactive art.