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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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My Azalea Festival Weekend

My wife once described the azalea as a homely plant that gets real dolled up for prom night. For most of the year, it is an unassuming and at times ghastly bush. At the crack of Spring, it bursts and blossoms into a fantastically beautiful bouquet, then like Cinderella at the stroke of midnight, returns to its former ignoble origin. Each year in early Spring my city of Wilmington, NC celebrates this floral firework display with, well, fireworks. The North Carolina Azalea Festival took place over this past weekend and, as it does, swallowed downtown in blossoms, bands, balloons, and brokers of cheap yet expensive goods.

Azaleas blooming in downtown Wilmington, NC
Color Explodes from Our State Shrub

The festival involves all the standard fare (you could say it’s really your standard fair) from floats to vendors to big acts. Many downtown residents understandably purport again and again that they hate the festival and its relentless shut-down of the streets in front of their homes and shops. Regardless, the festival draws in a decent crowd from both nearby and remote areas for the attractions.

Along with several auxiliary events like the Stop the Violence rally, Alt-Zalea and others, there are also big names that come in to perform, this year including Hank Williams Jr. and Ice Cube. These may escape the eye of the more casual passer-by, however, as you navigate the maze of tents, bleachers, and road barricades. The more common elements of the festival still serve well for interesting or insightful experiences.

The Parade Will Go On Without You

My family and I went to enjoy the parade early Saturday morning and it went exactly as you might expect. Backed up lines of costumes, cars, and brass instruments awaiting their cue to march for the crowd. Now I missed about half of this parade, actually, simply trying to corral my family. We arrived early (since there’s no other way to find parking or places to stand) which meant about 30 minutes waiting for the parade to start. Over this time span, children 10 and under get antsy. My toddler wanted to return to where we parked and took her mother and myself with her. My other two daughters stayed with their grandmother. After some back and forth we eventually coaxed the child back to the rest of the family sans meltdown.

The parade already started. Beauties and belles, arrayed in dresses that would make a Disney princess insecure, led the event. Their vestments a vestige of a romanticized American South and a heritage I don’t share and that honestly wouldn’t have me. Commentary aside, behind them a train of high school bands, color guards, veterans, Shriners, and floats appeared one-by-one entertaining at each stop with rehearsed performances. It was a pretty interesting display of music, dance, driving tricks, and oversized balloon monsters. For all that I saw I also missed the Chinese dragon dancers, several belles, and a few bands. My wife was disappointed. I was more intrigued.

Azalea Belles leading the parade before the ribbon cutting
Celebrating Flowers, Dresses, and Southern Oppression

Life Marches On

No one really needs another metaphor for life, but parades make a good one. Or perhaps it makes a better metaphor for experiences in life. Parades are an interesting type of celebration. They are fantastically passive. Floats and pageant queens drift by like colorful clouds while onlookers clap and snap photos. A progressive sequence of equally candid and curated moments, bundled up with heritage and history. Like clouds, like life, it starts and goes on without you. You can get so tied up in the struggles of the day that you miss it, even when it’s right next to you. But when you catch yourself, you find out there’s nothing to do but enjoy it or march along with it for a while yourself.

Diversion Can Be Medicine

After the Azalea Festival parade, we went to see the vendors. I was honestly surprised how the line of merchant tents actually seemed endless. Local businesses had tables near their physical shops, vendors from different towns showed up, shops that generally work out of their homes had booths. Everyone had brought some money so it was open season on any small things anyone wanted to pick up. This meant a good time for everyone to browse, enjoy, and feel satisfied with a fun spur-of-the-moment purchase.

Festival booths are also a great way to study the psychology of each member of your family. Every neurosis can be observed, it seems, by watching a person making a buying decision they don’t have to. There were many opportunities as every several feet there was another stop to step into a tent and ask about merchandise. There is also something therapeutic about simply gawking at something novel, interesting, or pretty. At least for me, I feel more creative walking around dealers and artisans, watching what they crafted by hand. To see how many of them took what were once little ideas and packaged them in compelling and ornate ways into a charming craft.

My children’s eyes lit up once or twice at baubles like bubble guns and cute stuff like stuffed toys. I find there is an important maturity developed from making a decision on a single thing from a spread of desires based on how much you are willing to and able to spend at the moment. Further, walking away satisfied with that decision breeds a responsible and appreciative adult (I hope).

North Carolina Azalea Festival merchant tents
A Mile of Artists and Artisans Easily Working Off Their Tent Costs

Deep Fried Paradise

Because we took the initiative to carry a package of nutritious Oreo cookies with us, we had snacks all while shopping. This meant things went very sanely when we arrived at the food vendor end of the tents. We already knew what we wanted, so we wrapped that adventure up with the purchase of a couple of obligatory funnel cakes.

Fair food is a unique paradox. It barely qualifies as food and it’s never priced fairly. Despite this, it has an important place as I consider it the only true American food. Everything else is imported and immigrant born as far as I’m concerned. After all of the decades I’ve lived on this planet, I still marvel at the fact that you can deep fry and serve butter or Coca-Cola. I’m also amazed by the fact that I can eat a single onion, prepared and served in such a way to meet my calorie requirements for a day, and my fat and carbohydrate recommendations for a week.

Fair food vendor at the NC Azalea Fest
Fair Food Prices Correlate with its Glycemic Index

With the exception of some plants that my wife and mother took home with them from the festival merchants, in the end, every purchase although small was more than we needed or wanted. The bubble gun was out of bubbles and batteries by mid-afternoon, the stuffed toy is already neglected in the pile of other stuffed toys, and the funnel cakes were even too much to finish. It wasn’t the merchandise or their practicality that made them valuable, though. It was the moment of diversion they brought. Unlike distraction, which takes away energy and attention, diversion can actually add to experiences and help recharge some of the power cells we use to experience things in full presence. As far as participating in the Azalea Festival, a half-eaten Pollock pancake helps complete the show.

Enjoy Yourself

The Azalea Festival was honestly an extremely fun time. I didn’t have a chance to participate in all of the activities and events as I wanted, but that’s not the direction I should turn my head. There is a lot going on each year, and I was also invited to speak at a couple of auxiliary events and walk with a non-profit I volunteer for in the parade. It wouldn’t have been feasible to participate there and to also learn life lessons with my family. Much like making a purchase decision at a fair vendor, I’m satisfied with my choice despite all the others not taken. Okay, I’m lying. I wish I made the Ice Cube concert, too, but those are the breaks. I truly enjoyed my time anyway.

Children eating funnel cake on a boardwalk
My Daughters Enjoying Funnel Cake Over the River

Whether it’s a fragrant flower, proud parade, a maze of merchants, or an Oreo (deep fried or otherwise) there’s an art to being content. The North Carolina Azalea Festival spends a lot of effort and attention on simply appreciating simple things. This isn’t the first post I’ve written about a family outing where I learned appreciation, and hopefully, it won’t be my last. Learning that life experience is a parade you get to participate in or miss is a lesson I hope I’ll hold on to for a long time. And remembering to embrace a diversion, especially where it enriches an experience, could well become a fountain of youth for me. Let the small things go a long way whenever you get the opportunity. There is a lot of value hiding in each moment.

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Trees and tea houses

Despite the mess that my life represents, I’m bound fairly consistently to a series of daily and weekly rituals. Sundays specifically for me are set aside to pursue some form or another of self-knowledge. Generally I read a self-help book, watch any number of spiritual guru videos on YouTube, or torment my family by reading something arcane and possibly Roman to my daughters and asking their thoughts. Simple, predictable Sunday morning exercises.

I intended today to be such a Sunday, but not all days are as cooperative as they are desired to be. My youngest daughter requested a change of pace to take a drive, and when toddlers make requests they do so tenaciously. There was some parental push-back at first to stay in, but she had all but buckled her car-seat belt by the time my wife and I were convinced to start the engine. What the heck, there was no good reason to deny enjoying some time on the road.

Before leaving the driveway my wife set the local arboretum as a destination and drove us straight there. Once we arrived, it struck me how excellent a decision that turned out to be. First of all, our daughter was tickled. She really enjoys walking through the curated flowers, vegetation, and structures. Secondly was the value of spending a morning focused on self knowledge in a quiet garden. Rather than reading or listening to someone else’s internal journey, this semi-natural and fully beautiful environment offered time to practice 2 valuable things.

1. Appreciation

I’m not an expert on aesthetics, but one thing I love about beauty is that you don’t really need to process it. Yes, it can be considered or questioned, but it is certainly no requirement. This is especially true where one learns to appreciate something for it’s sake alone without comparison. I might not necessarily be able to do this, but I can certainly allow beauty to soak it in. Today at the arboretum I took the time to absorb my surroundings. Now somewhat ironically, I did this by and large through a phone camera lens, but it’s 2019.

Another thing I have learned about appreciation is that, at least for me, noting what I show appreciation for provides an indicator of my values and my state-of-mind. What I notice is what I care about. How I regard it is how I think. When for just a moment I reflect on my appreciation, it allows me to remember what qualities I hold dear. For instance, I became particularly fond of little paths that simply ended nowhere. They didn’t lead back to the main path or stop in a remarkable area. They simply led to where they led, a generally quiet nowhere with a stone bench. This gave me the quality chance to think about how I, in contrast, force my life paths to go somewhere “relevant” or “important”. I rarely give myself the chance to simply take a direction that goes nowhere and, yes, just appreciate it.

2. Play

Work has quotas, games have rules, but play has no limitations. Taking time to be playful allows you to express yourself without the external guidelines we often become so accustomed to we cease to notice them. However, when you take the time to dance like no one is watching you are expressing yourself in a much more raw form. What good is self-knowledge if we never allow ourselves to be ourselves. What’s interesting about play is that there’s a form of play that reveals massive authenticity even though it is inherently dishonest. My daughter partook in this particular type of play this morning while I walked the garden walkways.

She played make-believe. She invited me into her magical country manor. She camped in her private woodland cabin. She “fished” at the edge of a koi pond with a magnificent sea serpent living in it. She mixed water and leaves in a stone cauldron and made, I’m not sure what, but she looked like she was doing actual magic. If you ever find yourself forgetting how to play, then you’ve found your problem. There is no “how” to play, you simply act freely and according to your self satisfying whimsy. There’s no “where” to go and no “thing” to do. If you ever need to be reminded of what play looks like, though, find a toddler.

Lessons Learned

I’ve been neglecting the power of appreciation and play on my journey for self-knowledge, mastery, and understanding. Appreciation offers the chance to observe the subconscious values that command the most respect and attention from me for the easy-to-pay price of being around beauty. Further, the rule, rote, and rigor of ritual are valuable but only inasmuch as they do the spring cleaning necessary for us to just let go and play when we are allowed. You could easily argue that being appreciative and playful is the epitome of self-knowledge. Confident, free, natural, and unabashedly honest. For myself, I feel these adjectives accurately describe how I want to exist as often as possible.