We typically think of technology as something that serves a purpose. That purpose typically isn’t art. So what happens when function intersects with meaning?
That’s the question at the heart of the TIFF Kids digiPlaySpace, an interactive playground currently on display at the TIFF Bell Lightbox in Toronto. The exhibit – presented in conjunction with the TIFF Kids International Film Festival – seeks to reshape our understanding of our utilitarian sensibilities.
“People can be creative with technology,” said digiPlaySpace curator Nick Pagee. “Often technology will be prescribed. Art and creative expression expand technology, as opposed to technology doing one specific thing.”
In other words, the digiPlaySpace is an art exhibit, presenting technology in the same way that galleries traditionally present painting or sculpture and placing digital aesthetics on equal footing with its predecessors. It draws heavily on Maker Communities, loosely organized groups or subcultures whose members express themselves by using disparate parts to imagine new technologies.
“It’s about looking for magic,” said Pagee. “There’s a place where technology facilitates new forms of media expression and new forms of interaction. If the experience isn’t meaningful or significant, then it’s just a piece of technology. But a computer can make you see the world differently. That’s when we know we have something.”
PaperDude VR is one of the more noteworthy examples this year. Designed by Toronto-based Globacore, the piece combines Microsoft’s Kinect motion sensor, an Oculus Rift virtual reality headset, and a stationary bicycle to create a futuristic reimagining of Paperboy. The piece reaches audiences at multiple sensory levels and it exists because someone was able to see possibilities not covered in the instructions.
“These local Makers took a bunch of things that weren’t supposed to work together and found an innovative way to generate a new media experience,” said Pagee.
Such unconventional thinking has almost become the norm. The 2013 digiPlaySpace featured a world premiere from Design I/O, a leading developer of interactive technologies, and received the Ontario Museum Association’s Award for Excellence in Programs.
The premiere – as well as the award – sent a message to the rest of the Maker community: “This is a place where we invite the best of the best to do what they can do,” said Pagee.
However, locating cutting-edge artists can be a challenge, especially when so many are working on projects well below the public radar. PaperDude VR was one of the easier finds because its studio is in Toronto. The digiPlaySpace tries to emphasize local and Canadian artists where possible and Toronto happens to be a hub for Maker activity.
“There are dozens of leading interactive studios in Toronto, so it’s kind of like shooting fish in a barrel,” said Pagee.
But an International Film Festival demands a wider range that precludes regional familiarity.
“Technology is moving so fast that several of these things didn’t exist two or three years ago,” said Pagee, referencing Oculus Rift in particular. “You can’t go with what you know. You have to be out there looking for whatever is experimental and new.”
Pagee monitors academia, as well as startup culture, technology prototypes, and various creative communities. TIFF also has existing relationships with numerous movie studios, many of which have extensive R&D divisions dedicated to exploring new technologies.
The search has become a part of the artistic process as Makers task us to reconsider our relationship to technology just as the Internet has already accelerated and redefined our interactions with each other. Many Makers are plugged into open source communities and hacker communities spread across the globe. Bugs that once would have derailed entire projects can now be outsourced to the Internet, allowing artists to focus on form rather than functionality.
“They’re remixing faster and better and more creatively in ways that you couldn’t before the web came along,” said Pagee.
Tapping into that network through Twitter, forums and other outlets allows Pagee to identify new ideas before they’ve entered the mainstream. It also grants him access to powerful creative resources, and the benefits are on display in the digiPlaySpace. The 2014 show includes Michael Newman’s Video Sans-Video Game, a flight navigator and literal side-scroller – the level is drawn onto a paper scroll – that utilizes mechanical parts in lieu of a screen-based output.
“In the first few days, it went through several hundred interactions and then parts of it broke. So we went to the artist and got on Skype and we started drawing up ways that the parts could be redesigned,” said Pagee. “We’d do the 3D printing here, or we’d do laser cutting and get pieces sent back.”
“Every few days, something else would break, and at each point we would use the maker tools at hand to redesign it. Now the drive system is working smoothly. We believe in making to the point where we’re happy to have pieces that need that kind of attention.”
Encased in clear plastic, Video Sans-Video Game was originally selected because it allows visitors to see the inner workings of a machine to provide a contrast to opaque consumer technology. But in the context of Making, seeing is seldom as informative as do-it-yourself. The saga of Video Sans-Video Game gave the digiPlaySpace the opportunity to put Maker ideology into practice, providing a tangible example that enhances understanding.
“Children learn through play,” said Pagee, explaining the drive to provide a hands-on experience. “There’s nothing [in the digiPlaySpace] where you’re told what it is. You interact with everything. Students are exposed to a huge variety of technology, which is stimulating and inspirational.”
Of course, not everything makes it to the show floor. Pagee surveys hundreds of projects before narrowing the field down to a few dozen, all of which are exhaustively vetted by a team of experts. Many projects aren’t yet ready for public display, while other items are simply too fragile for an exhibit targeted at children.
“We know that kids, when they’re playing, are naturally destructive,” said Pagee. “We don’t take pieces that we think will get pulled apart.”
Any code, wiring, or other internal functionality must be equally as durable as the physical shell (Video Sans-Video Game being a lone purposeful exception). The 2013 digiPlaySpace drew more than 12,000 visitors and the 2014 edition is on pace to top that figure. Many Maker products lack the stability for such a high-stress environment.
So what makes the cut?
Since it’s partnered with the TIFF Kids International Film Festival, all material is family-friendly and presented with an eye to education, with school groups being frequent guests.
“Teachers can’t get access to this kind of stuff in the classroom. It just isn’t there,” said Pagee, who consults with educational experts to ensure the digiPlaySpace aligns with the latest research on interactivity and education.
However, everything in the digiPlaySpace appeals as much to adults as it does to children, an attitude in keeping with TIFF’s approach to children’s cinema and a broader aesthetic philosophy.
“We don’t believe anything is just for kids. We select only pieces that have that magic for everyone. These experiences are unlike any you’re going to find in your day-to-day world.”
Pagee cites SuperUber’s Super Pong, a digital collision of Pong and foosball, to demonstrate his point.
“Super Pong is a minimalistic experience that’s designed to provoke spontaneous engagement. It requires eight people. It could have been two. You meet strangers and play with them, and it’s a conversation-starter.”
Its popularity – as well as the recent success of the first digiPlaySpace: After Hours, an evening for adults that “sold out instantly” – gets closer to the true appeal of the digiPlaySpace. The emphasis on youth and learning merely demonstrates that aesthetics and education are compatible. The digiPlaySpace remains an art exhibit above all else, and as with technology, that artistry facilitates engagement.
“The digiPlaySpace is all about digital technologies…but it’s not. It’s about the experience. It’s about the craft. It’s about the art.”
The approach is so effective because it makes visitors active participants in every piece of art in the installation. A display like Antonin Founeau’s Water Light Graffiti allows guests to paint a mural on a luminescent wall that reacts to water. Most young children don’t know any words more profane than ‘hell,’ but there’s always a danger that someone will appropriate a blank wall for lewd and nefarious purposes.
The fact that it doesn’t happen attests to the show’s successful re-positioning of people in relation to technology.
“Water Light Graffiti truly wows people,” said Pagee. “It takes you out of the everyday. It takes people out of any kind of cynical or destructive mode.”
Like a good magic trick, the digiPlaySpace fosters awe for what’s possible rather than disdain for what is. The difference – and the reason all of the talk about education is relevant – is that Makers want audiences to know how the performance was accomplished.
“When people leave, they should feel inspired to go create,” concluded Pagee. “They should think about technology differently, and understand that art can thrive in digital environments.”
The TIFF Kids digiPlaySpace runs until April 21st at the TIFF Bell Lightbox in Toronto.