This post is a reflection on how I created a swinging experience called X-Swings for Light Art Gouda (NL) during the past two months. I am going to address the steps taken, some issues that arose and the problem solving towards the work of art.
As it was a commissioned work, foremost I have to thank the curator André Groeneveld and his team of Firma van Drie and all volunteers for the fine collaboration. It may be stated that this 6th edition of the yearly returning Light Art Gouda (‘Lichtkunst Gouda’) was particularly successful, also because of the fine visitor attendance of 4.257 people in a mere two weeks time. 10 Light art works were to be seen and experienced in three locations around the Jerusalem Chapel, all centred around the theme Xtreme.
Impression of what to expect, made while the installation was still a thought in my sketchbook
The curator and I deliberated on working within these conditions: it should be extreme, colourful, full of motion and take place on the attic of the venue. My idea was to make a set of interactive swings. The idea was that lights and projections could be influenced by the participants by obvious interaction. However, it should not be clear in the sense of a one on one relation between action and visual, because I wanted the viewers search what the interaction was about and get an intermingling of visuals and their actions and senses.
I wanted to use the fact that swinging is fun, for elderly often a pleasure of the past, for the young an attraction in itself. In form I thought about swings in X-shape, making use of the X-cross in led light as literal shape as well. My first idea was 3 swings, but this became 2 as I thought that the swing paths could have cross directions: in this way two participants that were swinging, had to be aware of each other, so that their feet would not collide. So collaboration is softly demanded by the way of crossing participants. And I got rid of the literal shape too.
So I had a play of two swings which would change the visual projections, but what should the imagery be?
I decided to work further with Processing and explore the visual possibilities of the programming. I found the work of Esfera of David Pena and as I liked the aesthetics, I started to elaborate on that. One hairy ball became two, thought about some strange kind of eyes that would look back at the viewer. Then I felt that two swings and two balls became kind of static and maybe to easy to deconstruct. Therefore three balls emerged.
Then the interaction had to be introduced. I did think about different sensors with which the swinging movement could be captured. As I found out that the Kinect v2 was just totally out of production, I thought of other available techniques. I took optical flow and tracking images on board. So a cheap external webcam would do the trick. Furthermore, I got the acceleration of the other swing by a small device called a Phidget, which could be plugged in directly in the USB-port of the laptop. This provided the actual data in 3 directions of the swing, which could be directly read out in Processing. Next to this, I added two moving lights which reacted also on the sound in the space.
Looking at the balls and translating and rotating their positions and chancing their radius, I discovered the moment of travelling through the ball was most fascinating. On my computer screen that was, as when projecting something like that in life size, the visual works differently. The scale notion of projection size (and type) which intensifies or diminishes the experience, is one to look out for.
Going through the balls made me look from the inside to the outside. In this way one was not able to see at first glance that three balls were at play here. So I made the green and blue ball huge in radius and the red small. This was sort of the beginning stage when the swings were not swinging. Working with some uncertainty by using some randomness made the image more alive as well. I realised that again the dynamics made the work although computer generated more organic again.
And so I made a working version of the interaction on my MacBook. It worked fine and I played with the settings but I knew that I had to make the actual installation first, before I could work on the interaction itself. Thus with ropes, wood, rubber and cloth I made two comfortable swings. The sound controlled lights got each a self-made wooden bar line pattern in front of the turning LED’s. The beamer and stand were prepared as well.
When I wanted to transfer the software and hardware from Mac to Windows it became a different thing. I had a windows laptop available for the exhibition, but annoyingly, everything with drivers and settings worked differently and after many frustrations, I had to rent an extra MacBook during the exhibition. Some light artist colleagues used Arduino or Raspberry and I decided that my next step should be in that direction as well.
Building the installation for me is about working site-responsive in the space given. As natural light should not be interfering with my lights I came upon using white and black foam-board to control the light situation. The actual setting of the swings sprouted from the available beams on the attic. The perpendicular direction of the swings and the maximum field of projection of my wide-angle beamer became test variables. I did an afternoon of experiments with set-ups before deciding on the final layout.
The interactions of the swings were crossing and all had some of their control – or better influence – on the visual and mechanical sensors. This transferred into the visual effects on the space by the always moving lights as well as the projection of the Processing sketch. Soon I found that there were many more options to be discovered in the dynamic installation.
Simple adjusting frame rate resulted already in a totally different experience. This went from stop motion and photograph feeling till hyperactivity. Would it be good to have a more time to play with the potentials of the installation, i.e. the design of the dynamic behaviour should be further discovered. Unfortunately there was no time for this exploration, as the exhibition had to start the following day.
As an interactive work of art the behaviour of the spectators is one of the most interesting phases. So I stayed to witness how the visitors reacted, played and talked about it. I had some interesting talks with peers, friends and unknowns and made notes. It was a happy playing field of public and the arts.
Said by visitors:
- Young photographer: from what angle should I look at it? There are too many.
- Mother: it is magic for my kids, but I’ll be back when nobody is around, it is challenging me to find out.
- An older couple, both on the swings: when watching the floor it dazzles me in one way, when watching the walls in a totally different way
- Boy amazed: light is moving paint
- Somebody sitting still on the swing: tell me what should I see? and after that trying everything out by making the swing move in all directions
- An artist who worked 20 years ago in this space, did not swing but wandered around and contemplated about the “light space combined as a busy city feeling with a relaxed village landscape”
- Man, 77 years old, couldn’t stop playing by walking from one swings to the other and back, in making them swing as hard as possible and thereby acquire hefty visuals
Lessons from creating this experience:
Artistic: This work was my first ‘obvious’ interaction work as I wanted to find out what that would do and mean to me. I discovered again that human interactions are my playing field. I like the uncertain and communicating results.
Sometimes during development I felt there was lacking some kind of human narrative going on, which I find easier to work with. This was fed by the intrinsics of light art, which can be very technological driven.
Depending on the behaviour of participants made me and the work have to wait longer for the perceived outcome. When I went into the space for building it, I had just three days. I prefer to work longer within the space as I like to find solutions for materials and space there best.
An interactive installation has a dynamic behaviour which can be tuned into different modes as well. I need to realize the work earlier, so it gives me time to grasp and play with the unexpected popping up too.
The installation was easily accessed by the play and pleasure it radiated. In this sense it was an attraction. For some spectators it was an invitation for exploration and contemplation as well, which lead to interesting (new) perceptions and experiences.
Technologic: Processing is an easy and very stable and well-working tool. Changing operating systems is not a good idea while developing new work. Sensors are manyfold and offer many possibilities to expand on. Arduino is the next step to be taken.
It turned out to be a really good experience in the end, thanks to all involved.