This weekend we visited teamLab’s ‘Future World’ exhibition at the ArtScience Museum. We were kindly guided by Takasu, a member of teamLab.
The ‘blackbox’ exhibition space has a linear structure; we walk through and view the different works in a planned sequence, starting from the floral room and ending at Crystal Universe. The exhibition almost mirrors an entire universe as visitors navigate through various environments (garden, city, ocean, space).
The floral room (comprising three works, ‘Flowers and People, Cannot be Controlled but Live Together’, ‘Ever Blossoming Life II’ and ‘Flutter of Butterflies Beyond Borders’) engages our senses on multiple levels— sight, sound, smell, climate etc.— to create an immersive space. The projections react to our presence and vary with the current climate. This is a thoughtful feature as galleries often seek to create a sense of ‘timelessness’ which disconnects the space from the outside environment. However, the changing flora and fauna makes the work feel like an extension of the real world.
The digitally rendered Universe of Water Particles recalls East Asian landscape paintings. The massive cascading waterfall has a strong sense of gravity and vertical dynamism as the water particles flow down. Its large scale makes us feel small in comparison and aptly captures man’s humility before nature and the elements. I like how the work incorporates Eastern aesthetics and retells classical subject matter like landscape painting.
Many of the works employ soundscapes to intensify our experience of the environment. In 100 Years Sea, the soundscape becomes more solemn and severe as water levels rise, submerging the islands. Similarly in Crystal Universe, sound is used to emphasise the movement of the lights as they rise and fall to form constellations. It also uses mirrors and repetition to mimic the effect of infinite space, lending an impactful ending to the exhibition.
Future World does not explicitly deal with divisive issues commonly discussed in contemporary art such as politics, gender or race. Instead, it highlights the importance of play through relatable topics which are common to everyone such as our way of living, transportation, nature and collaboration. Perhaps in our increasingly tense and divided world, we need some collaborative ludic play to let our opinions and intellects take a step back and let our senses come forward. The works are easy to appreciate, if not for the ideas and concepts they embody, then at least for their beauty as a visual spectacle. Spectacle isn’t a bad thing. TeamLab aims to make people happy and I think they succeed in doing so.
Part II: Propose a media art intervention to complement the Smart Nation initiative
Other than the occasional MRT breakdown, train rides in Singapore are extremely comfortable. The carriages are clean, brightly lit and air-conditioned, especially on the newer underground MRT lines such as the Circle line and Downtown line. While riding the underground trains on long journeys, we may feel detached from the outside environment. Many people are familiar with that moment when one exits a train station only to find it’s raining cats and dogs.
This week’s assignment is about the Smart Nation initiative, which was launched in late 2014. Part II can be found here.
A Brief Overview
The Smart Nation seeks to improve the way we live, work, play and interact with each other through the use of data analysis and information communication technology. These technologies are gradually being implemented in our public infrastructure, transport networks, housing environments, businesses as well as healthcare and day-to-day services. These innovative solutions aim to create a sustainable and comfortable way of life, which simultaneously connects members of society and strengthens community ties.
“I think for Singapore, what we really want to look at is how do you use technology, networks, big data to deliver the benefits to citizens in terms of improving their quality of life, to forge stronger communities, to improve productivity and industry and how technology can be an enabler as we move towards an ageing population. At the end of the day, what defines a smart city is whether technology has made a positive difference in the lives of the citizens.”
— Chay Pui San, Deputy Head of Smart Nation Programme Office
A well-designed Smart Nation initiative
I think the Smart Nation tele-health initiative is a thoughtfully designed improvement to eldercare, especially in our aging society. It understands the needs of our fast-paced society where working adults are divided among many commitments such as their career, children and elderly parents. The elderly monitoring systems allows family members to monitor their parents or grandparents remotely. The system monitors movement patterns, notifying caretakers of their whereabouts and any unusual activity within the home through a mobile application.
Elderly can also wear panic buttons around their necks to alert caretakers of an emergency. If they were to fall, the elderly person can immediately signal for help using the button. This is rather well-designed as it is portable, physical and works well regardless of one’s digital competency. Although simple, it makes far more sense than a sleek mobile application.
Connectivity and Openness
Seamless connectivity is an integral aspect of Smart Nation. This ensures reliable real-time data which can be used to monitor transport networks, crowd patterns and environmental conditions.
So what can be done with all this data? It works hand in hand with openness to build a smarter nation and encourage innovation. Businesses and individuals can access government data to co-create solutions. We see these independent initiatives manifest as popular transport applications like SG BusLeh and the Facebook chatbot Singapore Bus Uncle, which can track real-time bus locations, arrival times and measure how packed a bus is. These applications were made in the spirit of open source and their interfaces even have a local flavour.
Apart from being open and transparent, these initiatives can also be improved through continuous community contributions and feedback. Although not everyone can develop chatbots and apps, members of a town can contribute by sending on-the-ground updates (e.g. lift breakdowns, mosquito breeding grounds etc.) to alert agencies about municipal issues.
Becoming a Smart Nation: Potential Problems and Possible Solutions
As a society, we will have to alter our behaviour and way of living in order to fully utilise this technology. To achieve this, we will need bridging schemes to encourage people to embrace these new technologies and way of life. For example in 2016, new modes of contactless payment such as Apple pay and Android pay were made available in Singapore. Exclusive incentives such as timbre+ $1 Good Eats were set up, which encouraged people to try the new system.
More importantly, the technology should be embedded in a seamless and non-intrusive fashion. This is where good, people-driven design comes into play. With the development of a smart nation, members of the community also need to play an active role so as to not feel detached or herded.
Many of these initiatives are implemented using smartphone applications, typically with graphical user interfaces (GUI). Although these are a great start, how will we prevent marginalised groups of people in our society from being left behind as Singapore develops into a smart nation? Perhaps, some of these digital technology solutions should be installed in public spaces for people who lack access to smart devices. Furthermore, to aid members of our community with low computer competency, we should aim to go beyond GUI, and incorporate more tangible media interfaces.
Singapore’s future as a Smart Nation is exciting and promising. Nonetheless, we have to be aware of such limitations and work towards minimising any gaps in society created by technological differences.
Löwgren and Stolterman have presented a convincing and comprehensive argument for the need to be a thoughtful and reflective designer. Although they are writing specifically about how users interact with digital artefacts, we can apply their key principles to other types of design.
Although they may not have articulated and categorised the process as Löwgren and Stolterman have done, I do believe all creators and designers have an intrinsic understanding of the design process and situation. When approaching a problem, good designers would ask themselves similar questions along the way; how will users interact with it? What skills do the target users possess? How will my design alter user behaviour? Nonetheless, having the design process, motivations and effects analysed and verbalised is helpful as it quantifies the importance of good design.
I enjoyed the idea of design as knowledge construction. Designers do not just create products, services or experiences, but instead creating new behaviour and perspectives, which we internalise, and then use to interact with other people and artefacts. Löwgren and Stolterman highlight the influence of design and its power in shaping our behaviour, our lives and our future. It brings to mind digital features such as emojis that may have seemed alien or niche in the past but are now ubiquitous and an integral part of our communication norms. These tiny yellow faces have managed to classify a large range of our human emotions, forever altering our mode of written communication 🙂 😮 😉 😀
“A designer’s most important task is to develop her judgement, by critically and independently formulating her own assumptions and beliefs.”
After some deliberation, Löwgren and Stolterman do not conclude what makes good design. More than technical skills and qualities (which can be developed with time and practice), they stress the need for highly developed judgement skills. I’ve understood this as developing a good eye for design and user interaction. How does one achieve this? By continuous, conscious perception and reflection.
To clarify, seeing is not the same as perceiving! Seeing allows us to obtain visual and formal information such as shape or colour without understanding the needs the product fulfils, and what it requires from us as users. Instead we must constantly look at products, artefacts and behaviour, and reflect why it is good or lacking. However, developing good taste alone would make us good critics, but not designers or artists. While training our eye, we must also hone our craft by practicing, producing and learning from our mistakes.
“The thoughtful designer dares to challenge her own thinking and assumptions as a way to develop her competence and design ability.”
Lastly, I appreciate this disclaimer at the end of the section. Especially in our present era, where knowledge and tools are rapidly developing and ever-changing, it is important to keep improving and not be stagnant. After developing critical design judgement, we must then be open to breaking these set beliefs if they become limiting.
3 thoughtfully designed interactive experiences
Before I Die by Candy Chang is a thoughtful interactive design experience. Chang repurposed an abandon building in her city of New Orleans, painted a wall with chalkboard paint and stencilled on the prompt ‘Before I die I want to _______.’ The premise is simple but effective in inspiring participation and community spirit. Although formed by many individual sentiments, the collaborative work comes together as a coherent image of a community. The interface is just enough for the intended outcome and the work also recognises the influence of good design on a social level.
Ototo by the the Japanese sound artist Yuri Suzuki is another instance of a thoughtfully designed interactive experience that potentially revolutionises our way of learning music.
It is a music kit that transforms day to day objects into instruments. Although it has limitations and is not a replacement for traditional music making, it has reimagined our interactions with everyday objects and our definition of musical instruments. It presents a possible future, and can be a complementary tool for music education (especially for people who are intimidated by music-making).
Lastly, another example would be William Forsythe’s ‘choreographic objects’ installation Nowhere and Everywhere at the Same Time, No.2 (2013). This series of interactive installations consist of hundreds of pendulums swinging simultaneously. The piece invites participants to manoeuvre around the swinging pendulums, inevitably making dance-like movements as they try to avoid them. The experience is physically engaging, fascinating and encourages a playful art experience in the typically solemn museum setting.
This week’s reading is Goal-directed Product and Service Design (Chapter 1 of Designing for the Digital Age by Kim Goodwin).
Goodwin has broken down and presented to us a step-by-step methodology for effective project planning and execution. Although she writes in the context of design and business, we can extract many useful learning points that are applicable to other types of creative projects, even if they are non-commercial and lean closer towards art than design.
Goodwin expands on the common definition and scope of design. She goes beyond functional products and rightly includes services and experiences. Perhaps, all kinds of design should be viewed not as standalone products, but more broadly as experiences. When we think of a product, the hardware becomes a little irrelevant. Instead, we recall the memory and the good feelings associated with its use.
One of the models which Goodwin encourages brings to life the old saying ‘to walk in another’s shoes’. By thinking of how another user would view the same product, service or artwork, with a different set of memories, associations and skill set, we would gain a deeper understanding of what is lacking from our initial prototypes and proposals. For example, how would someone in a wheelchair, or someone with limited knowledge of technology interact with our art installation, service or game? Tweaking the experience for different types of users would make the work more accessible and inclusive.
Furthermore, interaction should influence design and functionality. Ideally, core ideas and interaction should not be compromised for ease of execution. Goodwin proposes a broad to narrow approach to design and ideation which I find very helpful. When starting on a new project idea, I often get bogged down by details and practical limitations. While these considerations are good, taking them into account in the early stages of the ideation process can be self-limiting and overwhelming, and may stomp out potential ideas. Instead, she suggests starting on a higher and broader level to work out a clear and simple core concept before banging out the details and execution.
After ideation, Goodwin also distinguishes and explains the three different design frameworks (interaction, visual and industrial design) and how they influence one another. This was very interesting as I often use a singular approach when designing devices and experiences (i.e. I try to make a ‘good’ experience without stating clearly what ‘good’ is or what factors make it ‘good’). However, dissecting this into distinct frameworks seems like a more holistic way to think of the same problem from different angles, ultimately creating a comprehensive view of our design goals and the intended user experience.
Some food for thought
Q1. Besides thinking about design and interaction from the perspective of different personas, what other models can we use specifically to create interactive art works?
Q2. Goodwin explains the goal-directed design process in the context of larger-scale projects with multiple stakeholders. How can we synthesise and streamline the goal-directed process to smaller projects?
WHAT IS NOT VISIBLE IS NOT INVISIBLE is an ongoing exhibition at the National Museum of Singapore featuring works from the French Regional Collections of Contemporary Art (FRAC). The space is set up as a black box and presents 34 works by 32 French and international artists. The exhibition is titled after Julien Discrit’s work What is not Visible is not Invisible (2008) which is strategically displayed in front of the exhibition entrance.
The exhibition features a diverse body of video, sculptural, immersive and interactive installations. For example, Martin Creed’s Work No. 262, Half the Air in a Given Space (2001) is a room filled with large green balloons till waist-level. From Here To Ear (2008) by Celeste Boursier-Mougenot and Ariane Michel shows the video documentation of an interactive installation where songbirds ‘play’ music on electric guitars. The selected works are very accessible, in terms of content and as a visual spectacle, making the exhibition a great introduction for viewers who are new to interactive art.
The work that most inspired me in the exhibition is You and I, Horizontal (2005) by Anthony McCall. I first encountered a similar work by McCall, titled You and I, Horizontal II (2006), last summer at the Australian Centre for the Moving Image in Melbourne, Australia. I was mesmerised by it then and am thankful to be able to experience his work once more in person.
The installation setup is relatively uncomplicated and comprises a computer, computer script, a video projector and haze machine set in a very dark room. The video projector on one end of the room projects white curved lines onto a blank wall. The curve patterns slowly morph between ‘S’-shaped curves, full circles and colliding lines (visualised from math equations) in 50 minute cycles. A curtain is installed at the entrance to block out external light, creating an intensely dark environment.
The hazey atmosphere (due to the smoke machine) sharpens the projected light beams and forms an ephemeral membrane-like space. The darkness further distorts our sense of space and we likely perceive the room to be much larger than it actually is.
Starting out as an experimental filmmaker in the 1970s, McCall is known for his iconic ‘Solid Light’ installations which combine installation, sculpture and the moving image. I think these works are brilliant as although they use relatively simple materials and methods of intervention, they are impactful and compelling. The space naturally encourages interaction and participants would try to tests the limit and boundary of this artificial space.
These immersive ‘Solid Light’ installations seem contradictory; they present the sculptural potential of light and its ability to create and define space, despite being intangible. The experience is also very sensuous and engages our senses of sight, touch, smell and time.
Week 3 updates: Installation setup & similar works
You and I, Horizontal is setup in an enclosed ‘blackbox’ space. The size of the room may vary depending on the gallery, but should be approximately 6 – 9 metres long to allow ample projection space.
The space should be extremely dark and only illuminated by the projection itself. A heavy curtain should be installed over the entrance to block out external light.
The vents of the projector also emit residual light which can be distracting in a dark room. Hence, the projector body should be covered up either using a plinth and box, or behind a hoarding wall with an opening for the lens as seen in the diagram above. This may vary depending on the layout of the room.
A smoke machine is used to reinforce the light beams. It should be placed on the floor in the far corner to prevent participants from accidentally tripping over it.
The wall opposite the projector is the projection surface. It should be blank and primed so the projected image will be crisp.
Comparison with other interactive light installations
Assmeblance(2014) by Umbrellium is a collaborative and interactive light installation. It is similar to McCall’s work in its sculptural use of light to create space. Created by the participants’ gestures, the boundaries are more fluid as they can be built up or disrupted by the interaction between participants.
Similarly, Test Pattern (2008) by Ryoji Ikedais an audio-visual installation that visualises data into black and white barcode patterns. The flickering images react to a soundtrack and change at rapid speed. The largest edition of this work has been installed in a large 100 metre runway space.
Although both McCall’s and Ikeda’s works are immersive, the latter engages our auditory and visual senses more intensely due to its highly-synchronised soundscape and rapidly changing contrasting projections. However, McCall’s work is arguably more intimate as the participant’s interactions have greater influence over the space as they move within the projection. The large expanse of Ikeda’s Test Pattern creates a very different atmosphere and instead makes viewers feel smaller and thoroughly immersed in a fast-paced artificial environment.