I wrote a little while back about UVA and onepointsix’s installation at the V&A called Volume and it generated some discussion about the work.
I asked the UVA boys a bit more about it and here is the resulting interview:
AP: I really enjoyed Volume, it’s very mesmerising and it also brought up some thoughts about the continuum of interactivity and reactive installations. I think the first thing that would be interesting for me would be to hear some of the motivation behind the piece and why you chose to construct it in the way you did.
UVA: The commission for Volume arose from an earlier site-specific work we’d created for the John Madejski garden, at the invitation of [onedotzero](http://www.onedotzero.com]. The piece was untitled but came to be known as ‘the monolith’. We’d made a conscious decision to resist our natural impulse towards complexity and produce something very simple – a single band of colour and simple analogue synth sounds, becoming harsher and more aggressive as you approached.
Although the monolith wasn’t entirely successful from an interaction point of view (we had more people than we anticipated, so it spent too much time in ‘overload’ mode), it did ‘work’ in that it created a powerful aura and transformed the space. As a result, when the V&A were approached by Sony Playstation to create a specific work for the Playstation Season, they commissioned us to create something essentially ‘similar but bigger’. We first explored the option of simply making a bigger monolith, or replicating the monolith (with three or four). From there it was a short step to a large regular array of ‘monoliths’ (multiliths?), at which point we realised the potential of creating an all-enveloping field of light and sound.
AP: In terms of the interactivity debate, whilst I could tell it was reacting to me, it doesn’t create that kind of instant reactive-interactive feedback loop that normally I go for. By that I mean it is quite hard to ‘work it out’. Yet, I think you showed that this ambiguity can be used to good effect as people seemed to approach the installation as if it had been deposited there by aliens – there was a kind of combined wonder and mesmerisation going on. Many people walked up very close to the pillars and stared at them or touched them as if trying to work out how to communicate with them. What do you make of these observations and is it what you expected?
UVA: The intention with Volume wasn’t to create an ‘interactive experience’ in the sense you describe, or to elicit any particular reaction from visitors, including ‘working it out’. Our previous experiences with that approach to design led us to believe that the problem of predicting the responses of groups of people is more or less intractable, except under simple circumstances like shouting ‘fire’ in a crowded cinema. People quite regularly fail to work out the simplest interactive models, because they’re not expecting any interaction; they’ll often stand and look at something as if it were a television (“it’s not doing anything”); or else they’ll work out the interaction model, get bored, and walk away (“yeah big deal”).
Instead, our goal was to create an immersive, responsive environment that felt like it was alive in some way, and was pleasing to our own eyes and ears. The way visitors behaved, and the atmosphere the piece created, were emergent properties rather than design goals. For all we know there were just as many people who took a brief look and walked away unmoved.
For the record, the interaction model is very simple, as you’d see if you walked through it on your own (admittedly you’d have to turn up at 10am to get a chance to do that). Each column plays its own assigned melodic or rhythmic sub-part of the overall musical composition. Walk up to a column and it activates its sound and visuals; back off and it fades out. Stand still too long, and you become invisible to the system until you start moving again. With more than a certain number of visitors, the complexity generated by these simple rules overwhelms your ability to decipher them, but they are nevertheless there and regularly applied.
The key maybe is that the piece works in different ways on different levels – even when it’s switched off, the contrast between its aggressive, regimented minimalism and the Victorian backdrop of the garden creates a powerful sense of presence. Even when the system is ‘overloaded’ with crowds of people, you can still walk through a musical/visual composition, get right up close to LED (which most people don’t get to do), and in particular watch and enjoy the reactions of the other visitors – it’s a group experience.
AP: I know many are interested in what is running the whole thing behind it technically? I don’t know how much you want to say about that…
UVA: Dragonfly 3 [UVA’s custom-built application] is the software controlling the installation. Exactly the same software that runs all our work.
The IR illuminated scene is captured using a strategically placed camera, with an IR filter. We then track the people in the scene and feed this information through to our visualisation system, which controls the LED. Midi signals also travel between a mac running Logic (for audio) and our visualisation system, to allow audio to trigger graphics and vice versa.
(More behind-the-scenes images and video.)
AP: Given your answer about the setting of the work in the V&A’s Victorian space, can you imagine this being anywhere else? Are there plans for it to be re-installed/exhibited anywhere else? It always seems a shame that such an effort then gets removed again never to be seen.
UVA: We would love to see the installation in other spaces, there has been interest – watch this space!
But wait, there’s more!
Last year I wrote an article for Desktop about UVA. As part of my plan to archive everything online, it follows after the ‘Read the rest…’ break.
Continue reading “Interview with United Visual Artists”