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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.

Let’s start a dialogue!

How can I help you with your project?

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A Little Bird Told Me To Write

I suppose nothing exists a priori. As romantic as it would be to say I was destined to write, or writing chose me, both are a bit far-fetched. My name Devon means both “poet” and “word-bringer,” but it’s really by an incident that I decided to write. I grew up a bit of a bookworm and read at a slightly advanced level. So it makes sense I had many opportunities to be inspired by some work to do as authors do, but it took one specific work. It began while I was reading a classic book as a young child one afternoon. “Ah, distinctly I remember.”

It was a children’s collection of the works of Edgar Allen Poe. I loved the short stories, and have been writing my own in kind sporadically over my life. But it wasn’t Mask of the Red Death or Cask of Amontillado that lit a fire in me. It was the definitive popular poem The Raven. After reading it once I knew I wanted to memorize it. Then an intoxicating thought hit me. Could I write narrative poems that other people wanted to memorize? I wanted to write stories and verse others yearned to come out of their mouths. I wanted to capture scenes and feelings in still ink that lay dormant in wait for an unsuspecting reader to become their new host.

Quoth the Raven - Photo by Sergio Ibanez on Unsplash
Quoth the Raven – Photo by Sergio Ibanez on Unsplash

The Raven – Anatomy of a narrative verse

Part of me feels so very very cliche admitting such a popular poem encouraged me to write. Another part of me gives fewer damns than a crippled beaver. To me back then, and even now, The Raven is like a meal that’s easy to chew, tough to digest, and hard to pass. There’s something about writing in clean, structured verse that feels almost holy. The body of a compelling and cohesive narrative brings me a satisfied joy every time. Meanwhile, there’s a melancholy in the accessible elements of fear, loss, frustration, and despair that sit so neatly and understandably in the words, the work itself could almost be a human being.

In the end, this is what I want to produce through my own talents and skill. I want to write the type of work I would consume. Honestly, I’m not there yet, which saddens me as much as it emboldens me. It’s been my ambition lately to be at least a decent writer, so I’ve been taking workshops in writing so I can improve. My hope, I guess my dream, is to write something that survives me. That persists simply because after my tongue has grown fat then shriveled in my corpse’s jaw, someone else sees it fit to read and repeat my words. That’s not an easy thing to accomplish, so I won’t get my hopes up, but I won’t put my dreams down either. Never, nevermore.

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TEDxAirlie 2

Yesterday I had the opportunity to hear the speakers at the second occurence of TEDxAirlie. There were several great topics by various speakers from all realms of business and social action. Inclusion across race, gender, and physical ability; cognition and empathy; sustainability and agriculture; and entrepreneurship and art. Being an alumni speaker of the event I’m easily proud of each of the speakers, knowing what is required for them in regards to writing, memorization, practice, rehearsal, and delivery. I’m also easily proud because a couple speakers were friends of mine.

While I haven’t had the chance to work with either of these gentlemen yet, I’m familiar with their causes and support them strongly. Cedric Harrison is the Asst. Coordinator of Community College Minority Male Leaders Center and founded Support the Port, a cause driven non-profit focused on lifting the state of the community’s neglected, particularly in the African American districts. Evan Folds has run businesses serving organic and niche gardeners including Progressive Farms, runs agricultural consulting company BeAgriculture, supports local traditional and urban organic farming and is the county Soil and Water Conservation Supervisor. Both of them delivered messages of a future that is inspiring and attainable for our city.

Speaking of our city, I want to take a moment to discuss this guy.

Jason Graham | MOsely WOtta
Jason Graham aka MOsely WOtta

Previous to the program release for the TEDx event, I didn’t know of Jason Graham. Jason, who performs under the name MOsely WOtta was the opening performance for the speakers. Hailing from the city of Bend in Oregon, Jason is an active member of his town’s poetry, slam, hiphop, art, and education communities both as a performer and a leader. His presentation included a vulnerable speech and written poem about the metaphorical building of bridges, or rather, the act of being a bridge and representing two simultaneous and sometimes opposing states.

Jason represented two simultaneous states in another sense as well. For one, coming from Oregon and appearing for a North Carolina event, he created a bridge between two separate communities. Hold on to this thought, it will be minorly important shortly. Secondly, he inhabited the shallow creek that sits between spoken word and public speaking. This is very dear to me as I am a member of my local spoken word and writing groups as well as being a presenter and TEDx speaker. There’s a gap here that needs to be navigated.

TEDxAirlie is a fairly important event with non-arbitrary consequences. Preparing for the event brings the university, businesses, several industries, and otherwise unconnected individuals into cooperation. It allows a platform for local leaders to enter a national stage with their work, message, and insights. Further, it allows us to frame what we respect or care about as a city in regards to technology, entertainment, and design, TED’s acronym. Yesterday the city demonstrated that it respects spoken word. That is huge for local poets.

I had the opportunity to speak briefly with Jason after he was on stage and chat about our respective communities, which didn’t seem too different from one another. Well, except in a certain regard. Here in Wilmington, North Carolina we still subscribe to good-ol’-boy society. There’s a special knock to get into every door, and you are nearly always shown the door by invitation only. No matter how present our poetry sector community leaders are, they are still only obvious and visible to people in the sector. Jason was visible from the outside of his home in Bend, and in being visible he did us a huge favor.

Yesterday several people live streamed, watch partied, and paid tickets to view a spoken word artist open for a major speaking event. We Wilmington performance poets should be paying attention. Being very present in the social and entrepreneurial culture clubs around here I know there are several opportunities for poets to open and lead off events. There simply needs to be a push to take advantage of the expectation and normalization provided to us by Jason Graham.

I look forward to watching our artists make and ride the wave created by the meaningful ripples from this TEDx, and to see them build a bridge between the worlds of spoken word and public speaking. It could mean a lot to the growth, cohesion, and identity of Wilmington. If nothing else, I think it would be extremely nifty.

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Art and Ideals

It’s a long-standing question: what is art for?

This is a question that has existed ever since the existence of art itself. Art was once simply an expression of craft, a signature that came out of mastery and skill. Art for art’s sake became possible once there was enough abundance in the world’s communities that people could simply appreciate something merely because it existed. You could, of course, argue that artistic things existed long before and the purpose was always simply appreciation. Since ancient days art existed to represent or to pay homage to some principle, generally a spiritual principle like a god or ancestor spirit, in order to gain favor back. Gods and spirits remain very vague and intangible, especially today, and both the definition and nature of art are still as vague. Yet somehow it makes sense to look at art in this light – ethereal and vaporous.

I myself have come to a personal conclusion on what I believe art is. Art is the result of any system or relationship between an intentional medium, some media, and a controlling force/inspiration. For instance, a dancer is the medium, the dancer’s body is the media, and the controlling force may be whatever the dancer decides at the time. Maybe it’s the flow of the music, his own rehearsed choreography, or his particular emotional feelings at the time. I believe what makes great art is the ability to consciously choose and change this controlling force, especially during the process of creating an artistic work. A great dancer can move to music, then fluidly place in a rigidly choreographed series of moves, and then suddenly express emotions that weren’t planned or even felt by the music all to convey exactly what the dancer intends. This goes for all of the types of mediums and media. The painter and the paint, the potter and the clay, the smith and steel, etc.

I still haven’t been able to address the question of what art is for, especially in our current culture. I’m definitely not sure if what art exists for is the same as it’s always been, but I would like to believe that whatever purposes it has carried are all closely related. I once felt adamant that art existed entirely to express reality. The ability for an artist to convey some aspect of reality accurately and objectively made them a better artist. And this way one could say the photograph was a upward evolution of art from the painting. I didn’t hold that belief for very long, as I started to feel that it diminished so many other pieces of art without clear validation. I then began to think maybe art exists to convey an ideal. For instance, art might exist to convey an emotional ideal, or an ideal person’s face, and so on. Soon this reasoning to began to fail me as well.

Finally, I came to the view I hold now as I write this. Art exists to express the ideals of that which is in reality. Art is a way to express some aspect or property of reality in a way that it could be made bigger and larger than life, made in a way that is greater than our senses would provide to us directly. You might even say in this way that art is the distillation of qualia. The particular attributes and a particular perspective through which they are expressed are controlled as a contract between the medium and that controlling force.

So, the fact notwithstanding, I haven’t put enough actual work in to qualify this as a definitive series of truths. If we suppose that these statements are the case, or we take them as fact, how may we more consciously use art today to express ideals within our reality? How might I use streaming video, or infographics, or emojis, to create an expression of aspects of reality that ought to get more attention?

This recent video from the school of life does an excellent job hand expressing ways that this can and has been done.

Is art a way to flatter reality? What are your opinions?