Digital Interactive Installations, interview with James Medcraft, UVA

Digital Interactive Installations, interview with James Medcraft, UVA

Location: Playgrounds festival, Tilburg.
Date: 7.10.2010
by: Anya Shapira

Digital interactive installations are created at the intersection of various disciplines, artistic and technical. This mix of skills and interests creates a unique kind of medium. Investigating its specifics can help to create more advanced and efficiently functioning interactive installations. It may also help to understand the direction of development of new media in general, as human centred interaction became recently one of the dominant themes in new media. The success of interactive installation can be measured in the level of audiences’ engagement. This brings up the question: what exactly attracts the desired attention from the audience and creates the envisaged engagement in the interaction? To get more insight on this subject I talked to James Medcraft, designer and photographer at United Visual Artists. United Visual Artists (UVA) is a British-based collective whose current practice spans permanent architectural installations, live performances and responsive installations.

‘With interactive installations so much depends on the reaction of the audience. So how do you predict audience’s behaviour?’ Apparently UVA learns about the response of the audience from the works themselves: “Our work is based on our experience, what we know and learn about human nature, how people react on certain triggers. In a way it is like playing games with people. It is fascinating to learn about how people can get involved. What we learned in the past influences our future designs.”
UVA created a number of installations with responsive LED screens. Installation ‘Monolith‘ (February 2006) is an interactive LED sculpture with one screen was followed by ‘Volume’ (November 2006) and ‘Array’ (December 2008), installations with multiple responsive LED columns. ‘Volume’ and ‘Array’ allow more sophisticated interaction with bigger amount of people at the same time.

There is a big difference between installations designed for in- and outdoors: the audience is better prepared for the installations designed for indoors as they are created for more dedicated purposes while outside installations are almost never really expected by the audience. Medcraft states: ‘When you do piece of work for outside it has to be more obvious or it has to be very subtle and non-intrusive. You have to spend a lot more time to discover it. We did a commercial job for Nokia. It was interactive light switch that responded to ambient light. We worked with another company that needed response to people’s movement as well. There were too many variables and the work became too complex for passing audience. In the end we had to compromise on the interaction. When you go through the gallery you are willing to give it a time to see because you have gone that far. When you are in a public space you are less patient. Installation has to be there for those who want to explore or it has to be very obvious.  It is far more difficult and you have to make more choices.‘

Many outside installations are dedicated initially to certain location, so called sight specific installations. The question that arises naturally is whether there is any difference in functioning of an installation when it is relocated to different surroundings. James mentioned ‘Volume’ as an example. “‘Volume’ was created as a contrasting element to the Victoria & Albert’s museum surrounding neo gothic architecture. This design contrast isolated ‘Volume’ from its surroundings and it gave it a very solitary and intimate atmosphere. Some years later it was recommissioned to go outside the Royal Festival Hall on the south bank of London. The demographic of the visitors there is different from the previous location. That caused the difference in the interactive relationship. As it was a far less private setting, people’s responses to the installation were far more dramatic turning the participant from that of a complimentary element to a participant that reacted in a contrasting fashion.”

Talking to Medcraft made me realise that most of interactive installations artists, like artists at UVA, learn about audiences’ behaviour from their experience. It is very intuitive and art oriented approach that brings interesting results and is also very fascinating as a creative process. As the subject of user-centred design is getting more attention nowadays, more scientific approaches are being developed to help understand user experience issues. An expertise of user experience specialists and psychologists is used commonly when developing complex online or product interfaces. There have been conducted scientific experiments to investigate human behaviour in the context of interactive installation as well. Although this kind of experiments are rather technical then artistic I wonder if artists cannot benefit more from scientific research about human behaviour. My opinion is that interactive installations can benefit from the mix of both approaches. It would be interesting to see what both approaches can learn from each other.

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