In the playhouse, as in the courtroom, an event already completed is re-enacted in a sequence which allows its meaning to be searched out. [...] The courtroom is, or should be, a theatrical space, one which evokes expectations of the uncommon. [...] Theatrical effects are such dominant factors in the physical identification of a courtroom that their absence may raise doubts about whether a court which lacks a properly theatrical aspect is really a court at all.
Milner S. Ball, Caldwell Professor of Constitutional Law, University of Georgia
Lawyers learn their lines before their performance, witnesses are given advice about how to play their roles, the judge intervenes when the rules (or should we say the script) are not respected. Meanwhile, the audience sits on the side to enjoy the show.
The architecture of modern courtrooms brings justice and fiction drama even closer to each other. The International Crime Court in The Hague, for example, is equipped with cameras, microphones and sound proof sheets of glass that separates the audience from the main protagonists of the trial. In doing so, the choreographic structures of the court are becoming separated and externalised through the medium of video feeds shot from multiple sight lines, artificial viewpoints and mechanical movements.
Objection!!!, the latest work of artist, writer and film-maker Ilona Gaynor, pushes the court strategies and dramatizations to their most cinematographic limits. Using a series of models, objects, images and a fictionalized case in which a tv National Lottery draw is fixed, Gaynor exposes how the language of film-making manipulates the way a case is presented to the court and how it is understood by it. According to the whim of the team that scripts, shoots then edit the trial, the unfolding of a court case could thus be made to look comical, suspenseful, romantic, tragic or even satirical.
Among the pieces on show is a courtroom diorama the director would use to plan the filmic direction of the trial, a green Chroma Key Set designed to be positioned as needed and edited out in post-production, a show reel that illustrates cinematographic courtroom drama, an elaborate drawing that maps out the location of the cameras, dolly tracks and people required for the shooting length of a real time testimonial deposition, etc.
I particularly liked the photographic 'documentation' of a lawyer practicing persuasive gestures in preparation for a trial. The images are inspired by 1925 photos showing Adolf Hitler rehearsing his oratory.
Objection!!! is part of Designers in Residence 2014: Disruption, an exhibition that showcases the work developed by young designers during their residency at the Design Museum in London. I interviewed Ilona a few weeks after the opening of the show:
Hi Ilona! The starting point of the project is the new courtrooms built by architects where the jury is seated in a separate room. Is that already happening? And what motivates the change in architecture?
It is to an extent, with jurors becoming separated by glass and mirrors with live camera feeds and sound to accompany them. There was a surge in European courts that were being retrofitted into pre-existing office buildings, to save resources (and sometimes for safety of civil unrest) during late 90's and, the use of camera's, audio/video feeds is now becoming common practice and is considered state of the art.
The international Criminal Court, in the Hague operates as a very bizarre enclosure, scattered with cameras, positioned at varying heights around the room, their lenses sight and proximity fixed upon on the faces and edges of tables, glasses, mirrors and reflections all screening on live fed monitors to the both the prosecution and defence. These cameras intercut each other at moments pivotal of play, documenting the dialogue and sequence of events from much higher heights then those of eye level.
The piece that attracts the most attention in the museum show is probably the elaborate diorama. Could you describe it, what happens there?
The diorama depicts the redesign of a courtroom, the UK crown court to be exact. The geometry of the courtroom was redesigned with the audience in mind; the imagined viewing sightlines to be much more acute then they would normally be; the seats would be positioned as ascending podium steps (the kinds that you see at sports stadiums) to enhance the viewing experience.
The model was designed to be self-assembled, by easy slotting conjoining walls and furniture.
It also comes with a kit of parts that consist of prefabbed folding camera equipment such as: camera's, dolly rigs, tripods, microphone stands, audience participation signs such as "boo" and "applause" and a set of dramatically posed lawyers and corresponding court room furniture.
I'm quite curious about the fact that you chose to explain the work using objects. That's not unusual in a design museum of course but you are openly influenced by cinema, your work often refers to it, you hired an actor and there are indeed films in the show but they are not yours. So why didn't you just make a video to explain Objection?
I've got a strong aversion to films that's sole purpose is to explain a work. For some reason it's becoming common practice in design (especially when referring to objects) that the designer needs to reveal the 'imagined' interactivity of the 'objects', in some candidly scarce scenario.
For me, I actually tend to get accidentally commissioned to make objects; I don't even really value objects and often find objects hard to engage with, because somehow they tend to lack rhythm or sequential value. I see my work as studies, or compositions that try and allude to a balancing act of arguments or sequential chapters as you may have noticed I often index the 'objects' or give them a sort of taxonomy or textual story with which to engage with.
Cinema for me is a common ground with which the fantasies of popular culture are often revealed in much more interesting ways then most other mediums, films allow us freely to wonder around the unimaginable in ways that are contextually and textually rich. My work is often tiptoeing along the edge of this medium because I believe the interrelations between cinema and topics I often pivot around are inextricably linked: aesthetically, contextually and culturally. I am actually this year moving my practice much more into the film going forward, both professionally and personally.
The films that you are referring to in 'Objection!!!' are a series of edited clips taken from TV dramas and films that depict the courtroom on screen as a scene or sequence, spanning across the last century of TV and cinema. The purpose of this film is to put my argument into a broadly understood context... the collectively memorised experience of the courtroom, which for most of us, has been experienced through a series of lenses rather then first hand. The film of edited sequences also reveals to the audience the stylistic differentiations between filmic genres, revealing how hard it becomes to remain objective as a pervasive viewer (in this projects case, the jury) when a sequence of camera cuts, pans, soundtracks intertwine. It would be very disturbing to witness (or watch) a case dealing with violence or rape depicted accidentally or not as a comedy for instance; the viewer's perception and adjudication could sit solely on the head of a deft handed technician. Of course this is an extreme example, but we are much more conditioned to filmic languages, no matter how subtle they are, than we think. A fast zoom to face shot for example is a classic attribute to comedy filmmaking.
I was reading the interview you did with Shona Kitchen for the Designers in Residence catalogue. I really liked the way you define your work as designing 'ruses'. Could you explain what you meant by that (since not everyone has the catalogue in their hands)?
I suppose what I meant by that (although actually not so much in this project) is that I'm interested in taking pre-existing functioning models or systems that often serve to exploit the misfortune of others (legally or sometimes illegally), in some form of monetary or political bargaining and use them in ways to turn it inwards on itself. For example the only way to counteract a trap; is to use another trap, which triggers the setting of a 3rd trap, then a 4th and so on.
It is within these terms that I define my practice of design. I would say that I design 'ruses' as a stratagem to plot, to plan, to scheme, as ways to imagine the conceivably unachievable but very logistically possible.
My work often uses design as a vehicle to manoeuvre the arrangement of material in space and over time to pursue an examination of the mechanisms of risk assessment, financial calculation, and rather more literal, legal forms of judgement, in order to generate new situations events or moments to invoke an aesthetic of precision, by really obsessing over narrowing margins of space and time, where exactness matters and becomes a force (I define as design) in its own right.
Also my work often takes form as an anticipation of another form, as a pretext often constructed to allow something else to happen or to be imagined.
My commercial work under my company name The Department of No, uses this practice in much more commercial spheres such as law enforcement, legal planning, crime prevention and script plausibility studies. The ruses directly relate when cross contaminating commercial work with exhibitions and consultancy, they all amalgamate, the fiction feeds the real world and vice versa.
For example I'm currently setting up a practice of licenced Private Investigators to operate in an office located in West Hollywood in Los Angeles, to investigate civil disputes across the city that repeatedly plays itself. The pretext being to write and direct a play of experiences and cases (individuals case plaintiffs unrevealed of course), but we will be operating as a real firm with real clients, attesting to real legal cases.
We live in a time of state control, secrecy and surveillance. But by turning a trial into entertainment, you remove some of the gravitas of the justice system and leave the procedures and interpretation of a trial into the subjective hands of a film director. I've just been reading articles from last year about the introduction of television cameras into UK courts to film the sentencing of serious criminals. There was a lot of debate around losing some of the 'mystique' of the courtroom vs helping "the public re-engage with the criminal justice system". Is that something you'd like to comment on?
I'm not sure the 'mystique' of the courtroom has ever really entered the minds of most, I say this though however because we have been conditioned to the action of the court, its demeanour, atmosphere and so on through television, film etc. Of course these are highly dramatized, with little or no legal references alluding to the true nature of the law but oddly, legal dramas are some of the highest rated shows on television... the sexed up Ally McBeal was supposedly responsible for a boost of people studying law during the early 00's.
I think there's a really odd disconnect between the perceivable "public re-engaging with the criminal justice system" and actual engagement with the issues that ensue due to pervasive camera's in the courts. The Oscar Pistorius trial was undoubtedly entertaining, however the engagement was only of merely entertainment mixed with a public lust for blood of a 'murderer' to be brought to 'justice' at the viewing onslaught of a booing crowd. It seems to be taking form as a contemporary Roman games, I'm not sure how to feel about that, it requires both a smirk and a exhale of disgust. But I think the 'vs' in the articles you were reading were perhaps in the wrong place. The more concerning question is how the cameras will inevitably affect the trial and veracity of testimony itself rather then jog the public's perception.
Ilona Gaynor is an artist, writer and film-maker. She is also the founder of research studio The Department of No and teaches digital + media students "how to tell better stories" at Rhode Island School of Design.
Designers in Residence 2014: Disruption is at the Design Museum in London until 8 March 2015.
Conflict, Time, Photography, an exhibition which opened in November at Tate Modern, looks at over 150 years of conflict around the world, since the invention of photography. It could have been one of those shows that organizes the photos according to themes, geographical area or chronology. The curator, however, orchestrated the exhibition according to the length of time that elapsed between the conflict and the moment the photographs were taken.
The first room in the show, "Moments Later", contains thus images taken almost straight after a disaster occurred. The most compelling example of it is the mushroom cloud photographed 20 minutes after the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima. Toshio Fukada was then a 17-year-old student. He always carried a camera with him and took the images from his window, 2.7 km from the hypocenter.
As you walk through the exhibition rooms, the duration between image and event grows into days, weeks, months, years and decades.
The last gallery shows the series i found most moving. Almost 100 years after the start of WWI, Chloe Dewe Mathews photographed some of the exact spots where British, French and Belgian soldiers were executed for cowardice and desertion between 1914 and 1918. The photos of Shot at Dawn were also taken at approximately the same time of year the men were killed.
The quiet landscapes evoke incidents which memory has been suppressed for decades. Although there is no visible trace of what happened in these locations, the photographer managed to convey the sadness and anxiety these young men must have experienced in those early mornings.
I've seen countless books and exhibitions of images taken by photojournalists reporting from the battle fields. Some of the images were truly frightful and depressing. Yet, frequent exposure to war photography have almost numbed my feelings. I go from one image to the next one and, at best, only a fleeting memory of what i've just seen remains. Conflict, Time, Photography revitalized a sense of horror and dismay that war images (should) provoke. By forcing me to reflect on the impact that conflicts have on people, culture and places over time, this show will haunt me for years to come.
Conflict, Time, Photography is an intense and powerful show. I wish i could mention every single work i saw there but i'll just stop at this brief selection:
Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin have a couple of works in the exhibition. One of them is People In Trouble Laughing Pushed To The Ground which uses fragments of images of Belfast Exposed, a collection of images taken by professional photo-journalists and 'civilian' photographers who documented life under the Troubles in Northern Ireland. Whenever someone selected an image in the archive for use, it was market by a red, yellow or blue sticker. Broomberg and Chanarin enlarged and reprinted the area beneath the dots, revealing puzzling, romantic, amusing or brutal fragments of life under the Troubles.
70 years after the end of the Spanish Civil War, Luc Delahaye photographed the forensic exhumation of a mass grave containing the bodies of Republican fighters executed during the Spanish civil war.
In October 2012, Ursula Schulz-Dornburg had the opportunity to photograph the former USSR nuclear weapons test site near the city of Kurchatov in Kazakhstan. The photographs depict the pitiful remnants of a megalomaniacal arms race.
Nick Waplington captured drawings and words left on the walls by the prisoners of a war camp in South Wales where the low and mid level SS where kept before being sent to Nuremburg for trail.
Sophie Ristelhueber traveled to Kuwait months after the end of the First Gulf War to record the physical traces of the conflict. The aerial and ground-level photos depict bombed out terrains, mangled machinery, still-burning oil fields, tank tracks and other "scars" left on the landscape.
Stephen Shore met Ukrainian holocaust survivors in their houses. There are a few portraits but most of the images detail their belongings. From baby pink plastic radio to ordinary kitchen corners.
In the months after the end of the first world war, architect Pierre Anthony-Thouret documented the destruction of the city of Reims.
In one of the pieces of the series A Living Man Declared Dead and Other Chapters I - XVIII , Taryn Simon looked for the survivors of the Srebrenica massacre and built up their family trees. Most of the photos show women and children. Missing members are represented by blanks or by dental fragments found in mass graves.
I'll end with a photo that hangs in one of the rooms titled Moments After. Don McCullin's portrait of a shell shocked marine was taken just minutes after he had been engaged in a bloody battle in Vietnam.
"McCullin's picture is very important for us because it's the kind of picture we very rarely see in the era of embedded photographers, it is very hard to take and show this kind of image," curator Simon Baker told The Guardian. "It's taken moments after this marine has been engaged in an extremely serious engagement and you see him completely traumatised, completely frozen by what's happened to him."
Conflict, Time, Photography is at Tate Modern until 15 March 2015.
For most people, EDL is the acronym of the English Defense League, a far-right group that regularly and vehemently protests in the street against what it considers to be a spread of Islamism and Sharia in the United Kingdom. Over the past two years however, a number of UK residents have started to associate EDL with another movement: the English Disco Lovers. The story started as a joke when art student Chris Alton decided to reclaim the acronym and google bomb EDL so that English Disco Lovers would appear on top of the results for the search 'EDL' and the three letters would, over time, be associated with tolerance, multiculturalism and equality. Another key strategy of English Disco Lovers consists in participating to counter-English Defence League demonstrations across the UK, wearing garish shirts, dancing to disco music and singing "Go! Walk out the door! Turn around now 'cause you're not welcome anymore!" to the members of the islamophobic group.
As the popularity of its online and offline presence demonstrates, English Disco Lovers has grown into a socially-engaged project that is far more powerful than what its initiators had initially envisioned. I talked online with Chris Alton about the EDL adventures, the wrath of the original EDL, the positive changes a humorous campaign can yield and how English Disco Lovers fits into the history of disco music.
Hi Chris! Who's Alex Jones? i keep finding his name rather than yours in all EDL interviews. he seems to have had a Quaker upbringing as well.
Alex Jones is my pseudonym. At first it was a safety precaution, as the English Disco Lovers email account had been receiving death threats from EDLers who were none to pleased about my cheeky acronym-pinching antics. I didn't fancy a bunch of heavies turning up on my doorstep, so I did the sensible thing and used a fake name. If you look at my TEDxYouth@Hackney talk I'm even wearing a mirrorball mask. The name and mask ultimately became a license to 'perform' Alex Jones. I see him as an idealised aspect of myself, given form and amplification.
When i first read about your EDL project, i assumed it was just great fun and pleasant anti-racism but then i read in an interview that some of you actually attempt to discuss with members of the English Defense League? Do you manage to achieve something by engaging in conversations with them? Because they look pretty scary and some might be very annoyed by your own take on the acronym...
Yeah, through running the project that dialogue opened up. I'd get the odd message from an English Defence League member, one said, "hate the idea, but love the badge". He was referring to our logo, so I offered to send him a badge with it on. Those messages would become inroads, which allowed me to speak to them on a one-to-one basis about why I was doing what I was doing and why they were doing what they were doing. On mass they're a pretty scary bunch, but over social media there's (unsurprisingly) less to fear. In some cases the discussions led nowhere, but in others I found that the English Defence League members opened up to the possibility that their EDL could be causing an increase in the radicalisation of young Muslims, a few even left the organisation (or so they told me).
You wrote me that one of your sources of inspiration was your Quaker upbringing. What has the Quaker education taught you that helped you set up and run the EDL?
Since a young age I've been around people who are more actively engaged in changing the world than most. Quakerism exposed me to countless individuals and groups campaigning in various ways for numerous causes. At the age of 14 I met a woman who'd canoed out to the Trident Submarines in Faslane, planted potatoes onboard, then tried to make her getaway before being surrounded by vessels far superior to her tiny canoe. She was in her 60s at the time and at 17, I was present at the British Yearly Meeting where Quakers made the decision to allow same sex marriages and to lobby the government to legalise them.
Those are two examples among many, both of which exemplify the commitment of Quakers to peace, equality, simplicity and truth (the Quaker testimonies), despite the approaches being so different.
I think it's clear that some of the testimonies mentioned above manifest themselves in English Disco Lovers. It's a peaceful alternative to the English Defence League, which supports equality and togetherness over the divisions the other EDL capitalise upon and exacerbate.
You've been working on EDL for two years now. What have been the most surprising moments in the life of EDL?
As you can imagine there have been many! Getting it off the ground was certainly a surprise. When I made the Facebook page I never imagined the idea would move beyond my friendship group. However, after less than 6 months of using social media to generate interest in the idea, I got an email from Dorian Lynskey, a writer at The Guardian. He asked me a few questions via email and wrote a piece on English Disco Lovers, which was featured in The Guardian's G2 in February 2013.
Then in April 2013 I went down to Brighton for a counter-English Defence League demo. I was surprised to find a mass English Disco Lovers presence opposing the EDL march, bedecked in disco gear (I'm talking wigs, sequinned shirts, flares, the lot) and singing along to disco classics like Chic's "I Want Your Love". When they launched into Gloria Gaynor's "I Will Survive" and told the English Defence League to, "Go! Walk out the door! Turn around now 'cause you're not welcome anymore!" the surrounding protesters joined in and danced along. I surprised that people felt so strongly about an idea that I'd brought into the world, and that they were willing to spend their afternoons embodying it!
Why did you chose disco rather than any other type of music?
The choice of disco is fundamental to the ideology of English Disco Lovers, not only because of the genre's positive sound, but due to the history of disco. In the 1970s discotheques were havens for minorities, they brought together people of every colour and sexuality to listen to music that celebrated unity and self-expression. In 1979 there was an anti-disco rally called Disco Demolition Night, which involved the destruction of disco records. It has been said that the event had racist and homophobic undertones and that it played a significant role in the decline of disco's popularity.
It's also significant that, the word discotheque comes from Nazi occupied France, where jazz music was banned, as it was seen as a potential music of revolution. As live performances were deemed to be too obvious, citizens began to opt for underground bars where they could listen to recordings. These places became known as record libraries, which translates into French as 'discotheque'.
I wanted to redeploy this history in opposition to contemporary intolerance and the recent rise of right-wing extremism in the UK. The English Disco Lovers' motto is "Unus Mundas, Una Gens, Unus Disco", so it's also worth mentioning that, in Latin, disco could be understood to mean 'I learn', 'I learn to know', 'I become acquainted with'.
Apart from google bombing the far-right group, what do you hope to achieve with EDL?
Well, English Disco Lovers has already achieved many things beyond google bombing the English Defence League. For example we've been holding disco nights for about a year and a half, where the profits are donated to charities that tackle issues such as racism, HIV and hate-crime. We've held nights in London, Brighton, Bristol and Manchester, so I hope that these nights continue to grow in popularity and that we can continue spreading the "Don't Hate! Gyrate!" message.
What is next for EDL? any upcoming performance or meeting?
Well I'm heading down to Brighton in early January to meet with two stalwart English Disco Lovers about this very question, what next? I intend to step away from the project for a while and focus on new work, so the future of English Disco Lovers is a little uncertain at the moment. We have a few DJ sets booked in the coming months, which will be posted up on our website and social media, but in terms of big plans and aims, we'll all have to wait and see.
English Disco Lovers is part of an exhibition at the Collyer Bristow Gallery in London. The show remains open until Jan 28th, 2014.
Another hasty post as i'm trying to emerge from an intense marathon of moving house, giving talks, crying over irregular German verbs and generally wasting far too much time reading crime books. So here! A quick list of exhibitions i've seen recently but hadn't found time to write about:
My number one recommendation would be to go and check out the black inflatable castle at the Copperfield gallery. Tom Dale's 'Department of the Interior' is a 6.5m high black castle that echoes the towers and crenellations of Parliament with an absurdity that mocks its claim for authority.
The show is up and bouncy until 14 November.
Last year, Davide Monteleone went on a search for the current Chechen identity. Above all he wanted to know which of them, Chechnya or Russia, had emerged victorious from the conflict. The answer is undeniably Russia. But if you look at it from a different angle, the answer is perhaps not so clear-cut.
Arkady Bronnikov collected photographs of Russian prisoners tattoos between the mid-1960s and mid-1980s. A senior expert in criminalistics at the USSR Ministry of Internal Affairs for over thirty years, part of Bronnikov's duties involved visiting correctional institutions of the Ural and Siberia regions. It was here that he interviewed, gathered information and photographed of convicts and their tattoos, building one of the most comprehensive archives of this phenomenon.
FUEL present: Russian Criminal Tattoo Police Files is on at Grimaldi Gavin until 21 November.
Make Life Worth Living at the Science Museum Media Space presents some of the photos commissioned to Nick Hedges by the housing and homelessness charity Shelter.
Exhibited for the first time, following a 40 year restriction to protect the anonymity of the subjects, the images reveal the deplorable housing conditions and poverty endured by people across Britain in the 1970s. Not that the situation is much rosier nowadays.
A World to Win. Posters of Protest and Revolution at the V&A closes tomorrow. A fairly small but energizing exhibition.
Believe it or not, the Imperial War Museum is my favourite museum in London. There's the Jeremy Deller bombed out car from Baghdad, one of the V-2 rockets my grand-mother used to tell me about and occasionally there's even some exciting temporary exhibition. The IWM has recently been revamped and it feels very crammed and airless in there but the collections are as stunning as ever. Here's a couple of artefacts i discovered during my last visit:
Apparently local people asked British soldiers to take down from a wall the tiled mosaic of Saddam Hussein at the port of Umm Qsar.
I was very taken by this pair of woven straw over-boots worn by German soldiers to cover their leather boots on the Eastern front and in particular in Russia where temperatures fell below -30 degree Celsius.
Right, i'm off to Carroll/Fletcher. They've just opened Unoriginal Genius, a show curated by Domenico Quaranta. Should be a good one.
The WORK Gallery in London has recently opened a fascinating exhibition that looks at the role that photography has played in constructing the public image of atomic energy and 'the bomb'. I was expecting a dark and dramatic show but many of the images on the walls are alarmingly cheerful and wonderful.
The first group of works exhibited are the iconic images of the mushroom cloud. What i didn't suspect is that some of these explosions were accompanied by 'atomic tourism' (which has in no way disappeared, even though we might take contamination less recklessly these days.) Atmospheric nuclear testing in Nevada, for example, drew enthusiastic crowd of journalists and curious. They sat down wearing 'protective' eyewear and admired the explosions from vantage points which were sometimes perilously close to the blasts.
Those were times of faith in science and in particular in nuclear energy. As illustrated by Walt Disney/s 1957 tv episode Our Friend the Atom, the crowning of miss Atomic Bomb, families proudly posing into their fallout shelter, the futuristic architecture of nuclear power structures, as well as streets and venues that celebrate everything nuclear in Richland, a town located near the first full-scale plutonium production reactor.
The exhibition also shows the other side of the nuclear medal: scars on the bodies of civilians injured in Hiroshima, an elementary school built on grounds contaminated by nuclear waste, artistic works that use views of New York to visualize the scale of an atomic destruction, protests that bring to light overlooked issues of safety and security.
Most of the photos on display at WORK gallery come from the archive of art historian and curator John O'Brian. The show also accompanies the publication of his latest book: Camera Atomica.
I'd recommend checking them both. The exhibition and the book. The show is up until 20 December, it's not far away from King's Cross station, i think it would be rude to miss it if you're in town. The book is a gold mine of photos, historical facts, shocking anecdotes. It's also a demonstration of the strength of the image when it comes to shaping memories and imagination. I've mixed images seen in the gallery and photos found in the book in this quick post.
Camera Atomica: Photographing the Nuclear World, edited by writer and curator John O'Brian. Contributions by Hiromitsu Toyosaki, Julia Bryan-Wilson, Blake Fitzpatrick, Susan Schuppli, Iain Boal, Gene Ray, Douglas Coupland (available at Blackdog Publishing and on Amazon USA and UK)
And now for the many photos i promised you:
Check out After The Flash. Photography from the Atomic Archive at the WORK Gallery in London, until 20 December 2014.
Related posts: Anecdotal radiations, the stories surrounding nuclear armament and testing programs, La Cosa Radiactiva / The Radioactive Thing, Book review - Fallout Shelter. Designing for Civil Defense in the Cold War,
Photo on the homepage: Michael Light, 100 Suns: 099 Bravo, 2003.
A few weeks ago, i visited the graduation show of The interactive Architecture Lab, a research group and Masters Programme at the Bartlett School of Architecture headed by Ruairi Glynn, Christopher Leung and William Bondin. And it was, just like last year (remember the Candy Cloud Machine and the architectural creatures that behave like slime mould?), packed with very good surprises. I'll report on a couple of them in the coming days.
I'll start nice and easy today with the Eye Catcher, by Lin Zhang and Ran Xie, because if you've missed the work at the Bartlett show, you'll get another chance to discover it from tomorrow on at the Kinetica Art Fair in London.
The most banal-looking wooden frame takes thus a life of its own as soon as you come near it. It quickly positions itself in front of you, spots your eyes and starts expressing 'emotions' based on your own. Eye Catcher uses the arm of an industrial robot, high power magnets, a hidden pinhole camera, ferrofluid and emotion recognition algorithms to explore novel interactive interfaces based on the mimicry and exchange of expressions.
A few words with Lin Zhang:
Hi Lin! I think what i like about the frame is that it is so discreet and unassuming. You can pass by it and not even notice it. So why did you chose to make it so quiet and 'normal' looking?
Yes exactly, it's a really normal static object, which exists in everyone's daily life, so the magic happens the moment it begins to move. I was inspired by my tutor's art work finding "life in motion" - not all motion can provide wonder and pleasure in the observer, but playing with the perception of animacy in objects often does. There are many digital interfaces that have the appearance of advanced technologies and compete for our attention, but I think it is better to develop interfaces that rather than standing out, can sit within our normal daily lives and then come to life at the right moment whether for functional or playful purposes.
How does the frame respond to and communicate emotions? How does it work?
To start with, the height of passers-by is calculated by ultrasonic Sensors embedded in the ceiling. This is remapped to the robotic arm (controlled using the Lab's opensource controller Scorpion) hidden behind the wall which magnetically drives the frame to align "face to face" with onlookers. A wireless pinhole camera in the frame transmits the video footage of onlookers back to our software (built in Processing and using face-OSC) which analyses 12 values of facial expression such as width of the mouth, the height of the eye-brow, the height of eye-ball etc. That information then drives the reciprocal expressions of the frames fluid "eyes", controlled by four servo/magnets manipulating ferrofluid.
Do you see The Eye Catcher is mainly a work that aims to entertain and amuse or is there something else behind the work? Some novel interfaces, interactions or mechanisms you wanted to explore?
The Eye Catcher project is a method to examine my research question, which is to explore the possibilities for building non-verbal interaction between observers and objects through mimicry of specific anthropomorphic characteristics. It asks to what extend can such mimicry be deployed, specifically utilising eye-like stimuli, for establishing novel expressive interactive interfaces. We found that humans perceive dots, specifically eye-like stimuli, automatically as almost a hardwired ability, which develops at a very early stage of human life. By the age of 2 months, infants show a preference for looking at the eyes over the rest of regions of the face, and by the age of 4 months, they get the ability to discriminate between direct and averted gaze. Therefore, the eye is the foundation of human interaction upon which we build more complex social interactions.
What was the biggest challenge(s) you encountered while developing the work?
The biggest challenge is how to make the frame and two dots more animate - to not appear robotic but rather more natural. So we were really exploring how long reactions should take, how to select a suitable behaviour in response to peoples expressions, and how to provide continual unpredictable interaction to keep observers' attention.There's still a lot of questions to be explored, and even though its only ultimately 2 dots we're animating, the limitations are a useful constraint to work within.
Will you modify or upgrade The Eye Catcher for Kinetica?
Yes, we're working on it now for Kinetica Art Fair. We've already built a new frame that moves faster and more quietly. We've updated it with new Wi-Fi camera which provides more reliable facial recognition and smoother behaviour on the wall. The film you've seen is really only a prototype so its exciting to see how the new iteration will perform. We've switched round some behaviour too, to see how the public reacts. For example, at Kinetica we've programmed it to prefer to interact with children which should get them excited when it drops down to see them. In the future we'd like to build a more permanent piece using a 2 axis rail system rather than a robot arm. In theory the frame could then work on a much longer wall which would allow all sorts of new types of interaction.
Check out the Eye Catcher at the KINETICA ART FAIR on 16th - 19th October 2014 at the Old Truman Brewery in London.