Playing for keeps – social empowerment through physically interactive artworks

This panel will present and discuss methods for creating spontaneous playful physical and social interaction. The focus is on deep user interaction with artworks using physical computing methods with an emphasis on the construction of social interaction within the group of participants.
Wednesday, 14 September, 2011 - 09:00 - 10:30
Chair Person: 
Andy Best
Kristina Lindstrom
Åsa Ståhl
Merja Puustinen
Atau Tanaka
Inside “Empty Stomach…” at Eurocultured, Manchester (Andy and Merja 2009)
“No Traces of Sentimentality” at Kerava Art Museum, Finland (Andy and Merja 2009)
Fishbots at Digital Media Festival, Valencia (Andy and Merja 2008)

Chair: Andy Best

This panel will present and discuss methods for creating spontaneous playful physical and social interaction. The focus is on deep user interaction with artworks using physical computing methods with an emphasis on the construction of social interaction within the group of participants. What are the contextual and practical design related thresholds for willingness to interact and how can participants be stimulated to engage with the artwork? Does familiarity with art, toys, computer games or music help to lower thresholds to understanding the interaction? How does age, gender or cultural background affect willingness to participate in a dynamic temporary community of presence? The creation of deep user interaction with and through the artworks maybe instigated via novel approaches to interface or by fresh ways of presenting the art work to the viewer/participants within the context of the art institution or in Public space. As technology becomes ubiquitous in society, artists no longer have to explicitly proclaim their use of computational techniques; rather the social and political context of the artwork takes centre stage. Strategies used include interactive installations such as multi-touch screens, bouncy castles, and physical interfaces, as well as interaction through mobile networks and location based devices. For each of our panelists the presence and inter- relationships of individual humans is the central motivating factor. Each will address these questions from different viewpoints, offering examples from their own work for discussion.

Paper Abstracts

Entangling Threads

by Kristina Lindström and Åsa Ståhl

This is about a temporary assembly (Lindström and Ståhl 2010) that we call Threads - a mobile sewing circle. Threads is a travelling exhibition and workshop where participants are invited to gather for a day and to, among other things, embroider SMS, by hand and with an embroidery machine connected to a mobile phone. This invitation, to engage with various materials, technologies, stories and practices, can also be seen as an invitation to share concerns, desires, and memories in relation to old and new as well as physical and digital means of communication.

What characterizes this temporary assembly is partly that its boundaries are vague and moving. Each time it is assembled, it looks and works a little bit different. We suggest that trough our design that allows for design-after-design (Ehn 2008) we make it possible for the participants to add, alter and change parts and practices of Threads.

This continuous relational reordering of things, can at times be frustrating and stressful since it involves uncertainty. We do however argue that this fluid (de Laet and Mol 2000) character is most of all a good thing, since it allows Threads to become closely entangled in the participants’ everyday lives and thereby starts mattering (Lindström and Ståhl 2011).

Play acting

by Merja Puustinen

This paper is a review into experiences with creating participatory physical play areas as interactive art works within the semi-public spaces of museums and galleries. The audience improvised play takes place within an art work employing sound environments, robots and bouncy castles with interactive audioscapes. Art historically, the practise incorporates strategies from political activity to visual, performative, sound and media arts as well as role playing games. It is closely related to various forms of time, site and locatation based genres like happening, performance, social forms of art, and larping – as much as media arts practises.

In this setting, art turns into a stage, a platform for improvised social and physical interaction. In this approach, the media technologies are given a secondary, supplementary task in enhancing the audience interaction rather than a primary focus as the reason d’étre in channelling the aesthetical experience. The audience role has radically changed from the conventional oculo-centric Cartesian viewer position to a social and multi-sensory agent who is both a participant and a performer in action. The act of becoming visible, taking a central stage within the art work and the context of institutionalised practise of art posits is a radical shift in the socially normative public spaces. As a topsy-turvy active situation, it challenges and transforms the discursive power relations sustained and renewed in daily practise by the institutional order.

Bios of the Participants

Kristina Lindström

Kristina Lindström is a PhD-student in Interaction Design at the School of Arts and Communication, Malmö University. Åsa Ståhl is a PhD-student in Media and Communications Studies at the School of Arts and Communication, Malmö University. She holds an MA in Radio from Goldsmiths, London. Their artistic and academic collaboration started off at the IT-research institute Interactive Institute and was further developed when they received artistic development funds from Swedish Research Council (2006-07). At the moment the two are doing a collaborative PhD-project. They have published papers and exhibited artworks nationally and internationally.

Merja Puustinen

Merja Puustinen works as artist, curator, researcher, lecturer and producer. She is based in Espoo, Finland. She has a background in sculpture, video and installation art. She has studied philosophy and sociology at Helsinki University. Since 1993 she has collaborated with interactive media art performances, network projects and installations in collaboration with her partner Andy Best. They were amongst the first online web artists, and during the mid to late 1990’s worked with virtual multiuser 3D worlds on the internet. With their company Meetfactory they developed a 3D multiuser community platform and virtual pet or tamagotchi for mobile phones. They now concentrate their artistic activites on large scale installations and interactive works.

Merja Puustinen is completing her PhD research on interactive media art at the Academy of Fine Arts, Helsinki. She is particularly interested in combining art, architecture and interactive computer and sensor technologies to recreate physical experiences and elements of play for the end user within the institutional framework of art.

Atau Tanaka

Atau Tanaka bridges the fields of media art, experimental music, and research. He worked at IRCAM, was Artistic Ambassador for Apple France, and was researcher at Sony Computer Science Laboratory Paris, and was an Artistic Co-Director of STEIM in Amsterdam. Atau creates sensor-based musical instruments for performance, and is known for his work with biosignal interfaces. He seeks to harness collective musical creativity in mobile environments, seeking out the continued place of the artist in democratized digital forms. His work has been presented at Ars Electronica, SFMOMA, Eyebeam, V2, ICC, and ZKM and has been mentor at NESTA.

Andy Best

Andy Best (MFA) is a media artist, sculptor and researcher, specialising in playful and provocative interactions in physical spaces such as galleries and museums, in the public city space, as well as in the online virtual realm of cyberspace.  Andy is one half of the artist duo Andy and Merja, a collaboration with his wife and partner Merja Puustinen. Their work is powerful, provocative and often tackles social and political themes in playful, physical ways.
Recent projects have utilised “bouncy castle” inflatable techniques to create large, physically interactive sculptures and installations, which also combine sound, video, robotics and the space itself. In 2008 Andy and Merja were commissioned by folly digital to create a new interactive inflatable “Too Much of a Mouthful” for the Portable Pixel Playground, a UK Lottery funded project in the North West of England.

Andy Best uses his interest in physical computing and electronics to seek collaboration in other diverse spheres such as data visualisation, live performance, and physical interaction design. Andy has worked as principal lecturer in Digital Arts at Turku University of Applied Sciences since 2002. In 2010 Andy started research into the long lasting sociological effects of collaborative interaction in media environments as a PhD student within the Crucible Studio research group at Media Lab, Aalto University, with a particular emphasis on working with people with disabilities.