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Interactive Art with Detour at Denver Art Museum

Recently, artist Detour was awarded the prestigious Creative In Residence (CIR) at the famed Denver ArtMuseum (DAM). This residency gave him the opportunity to create a totally immersive and interactive space within the museum, where visitors could explore beyond the boundaries of art. We caught up with him to find out more about his latest work ‘The Interactive Tipping Point’.

Having applied to the open call by Denver Art Museum for an artist in residence, Detour was surprised when two months later he was contacted by email, explaining that he was considered a finalist and invited to perform a 15-minute demo of what he wanted to do in the Denver Art Museum for the three-month duration of the residency. Because he emphasised his body of interactive work in the proposal, he had to quickly gather his thoughts and began planning how to WOW the selection committee. He decided to call on some friends to get involved in the demo, having them perform on interactive contraptions that he put together.

The demo was set to take place in the museum during opening hours, so the committee and visitors alike could see, first hand, each finalist’s proposal in action. During the first part of the demo, he introduced poet, Panama Soweto and a contraption that transformed blocks into triggers for audio samples, which would be used by the audience to respond in a creative way to Panama performing a piece of poetry. Touching various blocks would trigger sound effects commonly heard from a crowd reacting to poetry, he noticed that snapping fingers were the most used sound effect.

The second part of the demo involved a contraption that turned fruits and vegetables into a beat pad. Denver artist, DJ Cavem performed some of his music by merely touching various foods. Each performance was interesting enough to attract visitors into the space where the artists were performing and resulted in them eagerly participating. One visitor became so engaged in the performance, she actually took over the triggering of the fruits and vegetables while DJ Cavem continued rapping over the musical beats the visitor was creating. Thomas believes this was one of the reasons why the committee ultimately chose him as the CIR. “I was able to bring something interactive to this space while delivering collaborative performances.”

After being awarded the CIR for the Denver Art Museum, Detour had to quickly plan out how to bring his interactive work to the museum, as he was still, somewhat, unfamiliar with the process and procedures of how museums work. He found it interesting to have a behind-the-scenes tour, which was lead by the Director of Conservation. The tour allowed him to learn how traditional art forms are retained and maintained and lead to questions about how digital art is retained and maintained.

After getting the rundown of the museum and its current works, he decided to create a space in the museum that broke all boundaries. He wanted this space to be one that would challenge ideas and expectations of traditional art. His goal was to have the space established at the intersection of contemporary art, touch and audio, while still living in the traditional realm. Much of the philosophy behind the work involves walking the tightrope between traditional art and interactive technology. “Too much on one side and you’ll be considered an engineer presenting a science project, while too much on the other side and you’ll be considered an artist perpetrating as an amateur hobbyist. It’s always important for me to get this balance just right”.

Detour felt the exhibit had to be art first and had to tackle serious questions, while simultaneously sparking curiosity. As his art practice relies heavily on colors and shapes, he decided the entire space could prompt questions that the interactive tech installed would help answer. He designed this exhibit to be a place where you could investigate associations between colors, sounds and shapes. How does a sphere sound? What do you expect when touching something red? How does form affect the way you interact with my art? These are some of the questions tackled with this exhibit.

The first step was to create an immersive space by painting the walls so they would be similar to those used in his previous shows. Next, he curated the space to have four pieces from a previous body of work, each tackling different questions in their own right. Afterwards, he created two new pieces that were created, specifically for this space. Both pieces were explorations of new materials and abstractions and were inspired by works that were on display in the museum at that time. These pieces would address more questions that he hoped would be answered. Lastly, a feedback wall was included. Typically, the addition of a feedback wall is not done in an exhibit but the deviation from museum normality made the wall an inviting place for visitors to leave feedback about their experiences in the exhibit.

He felt the most important part about the art and tech is that you must use the tech and not allow the tech to use you, keeping this in mind when creating the art from the space. He used the Touch Board and Electric Paint, utilizing the MIDI controller feature. 

Each painting utilized a layer of Electric Paint on the base that was later painted over. The shape in which he painted the conductive layer depended on the abstraction of the painting or the representation of the subject. Some abstract painting utilized randomized shapes and while the figurative paintings had a planned-out and a symmetrical layer of conductive paint to be the trigger points. The randomization of the trigger points allowed for users to explore the painting as seen in the video. 

Detour programmed the abstract painting’s touch threshold to be much more sensitive so that users didn’t have to actually touch the painting while exploring it.

Using the MIDI program configuration with the Touch Board, he connected it with Ableton Live that was running on MacBook Airs, stored underneath various pedestals. Running a VNC software, he was able to remotely connect with two MacBook Airs that powered the entire installation. With Ableton’s robust library of features, he could create custom sounds weekly from the comfort of his studio. He changed the sounds so that each piece stayed new and fresh. 

Although configured correctly, the MacBooks were restarted periodically to prevent random errors. A boot-up sequence made this possible without having to manually execute it.

The space opened up to the public on the first day of October and was very well received. A space that is well known for their protection of their collection now had a space that visitors could stumble upon and break rules. Just as much as it was important to meet and greet visitors, it was just as much, if not more helpful to observe the human behaviours of visitors and study how they interacted with the space. He wanted to view how each piece of interactive art was being used and where each visitor’s mind wondered during these interactions.

There were a couple of noteworthy observations that made him pause. The first was the hesitation of visitors to engage the work. Although informed about the works interactivity, the reluctance to explore the pieces by touching them was noticeable. It wasn’t until the viewer saw Detour, or someone else, exploring a piece, that they started to engage the work. The rules of the museum environment loomed large, even in a space that was dedicated to incorporating touch and audio.

He also observed the way visitors interacted with his work and how forceful they were. They raised questions of material durability. With consistent physical contact, he had to now consider that the materials that he used to create work would withstand daily use by individuals of various ages and backgrounds, which was especially important because individuals felt the need to explore the entire work to understand what was and what wasn’t touchable. To help alleviate this problem, it was decided to include instructions and discussion points on cards that were placed beside each piece. This change would help visitors navigate the landscape of this interactive art space.

Each piece displayed had its own unique characteristics that directed visitors’ actions. With the layer of audio, the idea of directing interpretation presented itself. The rhythm, tempo, pitch, reverb and other characteristics of the audio projected, dictated visitors’ moods, feelings and narratives they attributed to the piece. Changing the characteristics of the audio throughout the day, changed the feedback and talking points he received from visitors; the audio was a conduit for the story. This observation helped him to focus just as much attention on the audio driving the interpretation, as he did to the visual composition – as opposed to the audio being only complimentary.

The two pedestals included into the exhibit lead to great feedback about the expectation of sounds correlation with shape, size and spacing. The first pedestal consisted of a series of spheres, consisting of two rows of six spheres, in various colors and sizes. There was no order to the placement of the sphere, or sounds associated with each. This setup gave visitors a sense of confusion because their sounds didn’t correlate to color, or to size; however, this opened up the opportunity for visitors to overcome their preconceived assumptions and to start their own system of associating sound with color and size.

The ability to touch more than one sound also gave visitors the opportunity to interact in different ways. Because of the spacing of the spheres, some visitors would use one finger to interact, while others used the entire face of their palms to start creating color, sound and size associations. The second pedestal was created with square blocks, at various heights, which sparked similar engagement and conversations. The difference between the two was in the spacing and placement of blocks, which changed the interaction in a way that fostered less variations on how their hand would interact with the piece. The condition, synesthesia, came up in conversation with those that engaged these pedestals. Visitors felt that they walked away imagining how different colors and shapes would sound.

One art piece created specifically for the DAM was an experimental string piece that was inspired by the works of artists Gabrielle Dawe and Andrew Huffman. This piece was an interpretation of how Detour could make the wall sing. He wanted to turn the wall into an experience where visitors could see sound travel from on point to another. With a series of interactive string in parallel, he wanted to see how this piece would be used and what sounds visitors expected to hear when engaging the piece. Knowing this information would inform how he would set up the piece in the next iteration.

As he observed the engagement overtime, he noticed that the viewer looked over the piece intensely and that they followed, with their eyes, the path of the string from the box to the looped hooks above, to the end-point with looped hooks. As engagement proceeded, he noticed how the action of strumming and plucking the strings felt natural to visitors and this informed him on how sounds could be organized on the piece. Any series of sounds on a melodic scale would give a more natural feel, which became a lot more prevalent when changing the sounds, periodically, to sounds not on a scale. The way visitors interacted with the string differed drastically and further informed him that sound can be a key driver on how interactive work is used.

A second piece created specifically for the DAM was a large abstract painting, where he sampled colors from artwork in the exhibit, Mi Tierra, which was currently on display. This abstract painting showcased a flow of energy translated through colors and strokes. He wanted each section of the painting to exude a different intensity, so viewers would have to explore the painting in its entirety. During the beginning of the residency, this painting was touch sensitive. Only after observing visitors wanting to use their hands to follow the flow of the paint on different areas of the painting, did he change the painting to be proximity sensitive. Being able to conduct the audio, without having to touch the painting, allowed the physicality of the visitor to be a part of the work; essentially, having visitors’ movements become a part of their experiences exploring the art installation.

Because of the nature of interactive art, there is a two-way channel of communication, which facilitates creativity and collaboration between various forms; thereby, adding new dimensions to existing work. Detour showcased possibilities during the demo but as soon as the space was up and running, he was eager to see how other creatives could bring a piece to life. One of the creatives asked to be part of the experience was a musician by the name of Felix Fast4Ward. Felix had worked with Detour before and is eager to try a new form of music producing. For the collaboration at the DAM, Detour built a mobile string instrument for Felix to play while he loaded music onto the string installation created for the space. This approach allowed Felix to turn the piece into an instrument for a musical jam session. Each string, then, transformed from artwork on a wall, to sound that was used to compose music live. During the live performance, visitors would create music on top of the music that Felix was creating himself.

The implementation was slightly altered when collaborating with spoken word artist, PanamaSoweto. Each artwork in the room was loaded with sounds sampled from the audience during a poetry reading. As Panama’s performance ensued in the center of the space, the crowd would be able to touch a painting anonymously and trigger a sound that evoked encouragement. The idea that a particular painting, or part of an installation, can transition to be associated with a particular emotion, or action, was fascinating.

It was a beautiful sight to see visitors creating their own unique experience on an interactive artwork that dynamically changes. The idea that, on another night, the sound loaded onto a piece can change dramatically and consequently, change how visitors create with the piece, means that the interactive installation is never truly complete but instead, is perpetually evolving through other creatives.

Every art form that was experienced by visitors in the space sparked conversations that enlightened Detour to new perspectives. Ideas that were generated by communities with disabilities were some of the most interesting. Through the lens of a mother of a deaf child, he learned how low pitched sound, with bass, was something that could reach an entire audience that had been excluded by his current works. He left the conversation thinking of vibration, through sound, as a medium. There were many more insights learned, such as this knowledge about low pitched sound, that became catalysts for new concepts and a future interactive art installation.

 

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