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Portraits that Dance on a Canvas of Light

Art and technology have been at the forefront of my life for several years. Over the past decade especially, I’ve held a career position in interactive media, have been a performer integrating both digital tools and performance art into my shows, and even in my casual consumption have gravitated toward rich media. I’m also presently involved in designing and developing some immersive ambiance and digital signage projects, which I’m really enjoying. It’s no wonder then that I would find a particular interest in some of the interactive exhibits at our local Cameron Art Museum on Community Day. A series of installations were gathered together in the museum called the TeamLab, a rich experience targeted toward children. There my family and I had the opportunity to enjoy what can happen when the creative skills behind gaming and cinema are expressed as the disciplines of art and arrangement.

What is Interactive Art?

Children play with interactive words and shapes
My family learns that a well-placed magnetic whiteboard can provide an interactive art experience

Interactive media simply responds to a participant in real time. Art itself has a more complicated definition, but suffice to say that it is curated expression. The climbing sculptures you entered in the children’s museum on that field trip? That was an interactive art installation. It interacted in a very simple way: by supporting your weight. However, if well designed, it trained you on how it expected to be interacted with and even did it in such a way that the experience was exciting. You would actually be led into the art by the art itself. It would carry on a sort of conversation handed down from the artist.

This trick of making something intuitive yet interesting is a difficult one to strike just right. Too intuitive and it’s simply boring. Too interesting and it’s overwhelming to the point that you have no idea what to do with it. You also want to have a sense that as you are interacting with or consuming the work of art that you are “getting someplace” with it. The art should in some way communicate with the viewer throughout the experience when strongly designed. This back and forth helps facilitate a growth pattern and turns the single exhibit into a multi-dimensional piece of art, each moment being its own unique piece. Another powerful aspect of interactive media is that it can tell a complete story, all while placing the viewer right in the middle of the narrative. When pulled off it elevates the receiver of the experience from a participant to a hero, someone meaningfully tied into the active growth and life of the installation.

Designing Interactive Art

Encouraging Engagement

The first point we address to make a piece “intuitively interesting” is to encourage engagement. Is there a compelling call to action for the piece? Does it whisper “touch me” to idle hands, or beg the question “how does this work” for the curious eye to explore? Regarding design, there are some tricks revolving around expectations that can be played to draw the viewer into the piece. These are similar to some of the tricks related to meme virality discussed in the book Contagious.

Expectation works around the premise some interactions spell themselves out. For instance, an unmarked button on a large empty panel screams to be pushed. A dimly illuminated switch on the wall of a dark room suggests that if flicked something more will be revealed. Both of these are intuitive because we know they are supposed to do something. Both of them are interesting because what follows is somewhat secret. Nature abhors a vacuum, and so does intellect. Once we humans are given a step 1 and a step 2, it is hard to be satisfied if step 3 remains unknown.

Children with coloring books
Crayons and coloring books provide the fundamentals for an interactive media experience

An exhibit my family interacted with at the Cameron Art Museum allowed us to color in illustrations of sea creatures which were then scanned into the exhibit and mapped onto a model that shared the behaviors of that creature. You could color and draw in a sea turtle any way you cared to, then watch it come to life in a room-sized animated aquarium. The animals would even swim and dart away as you approached them. Nothing says “play with me” to a child like a white sheet of paper and a box of crayons. This simple starting point fully engages the art participant by letting them first be their own full-fledged artist. Then it digitizes their creation to interact with those of other children in a virtual fish tank. Being fully invested in this digital experience, which carries over from a physical one, you then get another layer of engagement as you can now chance your new pet around its watery home.

Sharing Feedback

Once you’ve encouraged some level of engagement with the art piece, it’s kind to give rewards or feedback for completing a behavior. In the examples above, you might expect the button to activate some sort of mechanism or the switch to light up some display where a beautiful figure is kept. In either case, what comes is a sense of satisfaction by receiving something pleasing after the previous interaction. You want to balance feedback after each engagement, it could jarring to have only one intense form of feedback surrounded many weaker ones, or to underplay a certain behavior by reinforcing it with a too underwhelming announcement of itself. Not that you want all of them to be identical; some level of variance keeps things interesting. Regardless, the point of feedback should be to make the user more and more comfortable with how they are interacting with the piece.

interactive art exhibit
Interactive art exhibit with magical floating glyphs

In a second exhibit at the museum, ancient world inspired glyphs were projected floating onto a wall in a magically lit room. Touching the glyph caused it to explode into creatures, volcanoes, tall trees, and forest fires. The animals could be pet or could be frightened, and the fires could be stamped away. The feedback was so satisfying because it was immediate and also so explosive. The exhibit was designed to harken onto a time when the mystical experience was at the edge of every horizon and man still saw the old gods in every stone and cloud. It accomplished this by letting the viewer act as a bridge between the abstract symbols (the glyphs) and their manifested critters and natural forces, essentially allowing us to hatch open cosmic eggs. Give powerful and satisfying feedback to lead the audience through your interactive art experience.

Granting Significance

One of the more beautiful aspects of well designed interactive art is that it grants the participant significance by placing them at the focal point of a living story. Good art very often draws the viewer in, agitating the senses just enough to stir up questions or memories or ideas. Giving them the opportunity to interact with the piece deepens this experience by making them partly responsible for “creating” the piece. When a viewer engages with art in a way that unfolds it into a richer state, they are now the artist.

Among the most powerful decisions that an artist can make with an interactive piece is giving the participant the ability to make a significant change or for it to leave a meaningful and lasting effect. When computer memory can store terabytes of historical data different interactions as with digital installations, this can be very easy. With more physical exhibits, however, materials and mechanizations that “remember” activities are useful. Sand that captures footprints, paper that can be written upon, etc.

interactive art installation projected on the walls
Trees grow in response to human touch in this installation

Both of the exhibits I mentioned above handed huge amounts of significance to their audiences. The aquarium installation allowed you to submit a lasting, original creature to the collective aquarium, effectively hanging your own living portrait in the art gallery. The ancient glyphs gave you the ability to feel like you wielded the power of archaic gods with a touch of your hand, essentially creating the world. These simple but potent artistic devices draw the viewer deeply into the story that is embedded in the exhibit. Significance comes from feeling that you matter. The installations in their own way listen to their audience and speak back. There is a conversation going on. Not a lecture, as is common with a lot of high art and galleries. If you as an interactive artist can allow your art to share discourse instead of a dissertation, then you’ve managed to do something special indeed.

“Interactive” or Not, It’s All Art

There was a third exhibit in the TeamLab. It was not interactive in the sense that I mentioned above, but it was very beautiful. It depicted moving digital images in the style of East Asian ink prints. As you watch the hypnotic and slowly moving panels of video screens lined up like portraits in a gallery, they slowly begin to chip away, revealing 3D wireframes of each figure and structure, slowly being weathered away then slowly and subtly healing back.

digital art gallery
Animated digital art gallery

This amazing piece did nothing more than pull back the curtain, so to speak, to show the “unfinished” skeleton behind the artwork. In a sort of post-modern, fourth wall breaking gambit, it introduced the viewer into the creative process by feigning destruction. There was nothing to touch, no feedback loops, not single user significance, simply a video loop on an array of screens. Even without implementing the techniques above, it was amazing to experience. This is a reminder that art, including interactive art, comes through a wide variety of techniques. No one series of steps or formulae can sufficiently capture all the possible dimensions of meaningful creativity, so never feel necessarily constrained into a list of checkboxes.

Art is beautiful and digital technology is exciting. The combination of the two opens up myriad channels for creativity and expansive experience. I hope that in reading this you are compelled to create digital interactive artwork and share it with the world. If not, I pray that you take the time to view and enjoy such an exhibit. The amount of immersion and perception altering possibilities may even inspire the muse in you to some other work, interactive or otherwise. Until either of those happen, look for beauty everywhere and take the time to create something interesting when you get the opportunity. I look forward to participating together with you in your interactive art and hope this post has been engaging, informative, and meaningful to you.

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