A new compendium showcases the visceral impact of immersive media spaces.
Books about technology-based installation art are few and far between – the pace of tech, coupled with the ‘futuristic’ style of many of these experiences, makes it challenging for authors to publish and promote these works quickly enough to avoid obsolescence. And with digital media, how much use is there in committing these works to print in the first place?
I collect what books I can find on the subject, and a few of these (A Touch of Code, Art+Com’s monograph) are good enough that I turn to them regularly for inspiration and reference, despite their being published almost a decade ago. The novelty of the technology may fade, but the strong concepts behind good multimedia work remain relevant.
And so when I recently spotted New Media Installation: Technology in Public Art, I grabbed a copy immediately for my collection.
The book is organized in portfolio format; after a brief introduction, the book presents 61 interactive installations, followed by 34 non-interactive works. As might be expected from a book with no credited author, the descriptions of each project are brief – typically one or two paragraphs, accompanying a two-page photo spread. Credits are a bit lacking as well; the artist or design firm is listed, but the venue, date, and client are often completely omitted. The bulk of the projects are artworks, with the rest split between branded and educational experiences.
What immediately appealed to me, on first flipping through the book’s pages, was my lack of familiarity with its contents. With a few exceptions (e.g. Design I/O, Refik Anadol, Universal Everything…), I didn’t recognize the designers’ names. The collection of works presented here is largely European, with a few creators represented from Asia and the Americas. And so I hoped to see some fresh takes on the book’s topic.
A few pages into the interactive section, I noted a pattern that I sometimes refer to as ‘preset fatigue.’ There are pages and pages of abstract projections and LED walls that respond to visitor motion. Generally, when I’m experiencing these kind of installations in person, I enjoy them… but given some distance, they all start to blur together. Many look like the free sample apps included with OpenFrameworks or the Microsoft Kinect SDK; others look like the graphics generated by code-free video manipulation applications like Notch.
This is not to say that there’s no artistry to these works – some are brimming with gorgeous color, others use immersion to great effect. My hesitation is that it almost feels like the artists made selections from a drop down menu (ribbons, water, particles, blocks), tweaked a few parameters, and hit play. In so many of these cases, the visuals are beautiful, the interaction superficial, and the impact, ultimately, feels superficial.
What most caught my eye here were the installations that broke out of the typical form factor. Chevalvert’s Murmur tethers a projection surface to a microphone, converting visitor voices into beams of light that explode into stunning visuals when they hit the wall.
Lateral Office and CS Design’s Impulse turns a row of Montréal seesaws into an interactive musical instrument with accompanying light shows. And at epic scale, URBANSCREEN’s Digital Derby transforms telecom towers in Cologne and Düsseldorf into giant, projection-mapped carnival ‘test of strength’ games, activated by hammers thousands of feet away.
The second section, focused on non-interactive, linear presentations, felt more substantial to me; in the absence of interactivity, these works seemed to go a bit deeper to keep audiences engaged.
By coincidence, my favorites here all transformed space and light using mirrored surfaces: Daniel Canogar’s Sikka Ingentium turns 2400 recycled DVDs into a giant sequined collage, projection-mapping their contents onto the discs themselves to create dazzling reflections.
Kit Webster’s DeepDream intersperses digital displays and mirrored walls to create an infinite landscape of media, disappearing slowly into the horizon. And Christopher Bauder’s SKALAR suspends mirrors on robotic winches, animating them above an audience while moving lights target them with precision, throwing beams of color across a gigantic performance space.
While SKALAR was one of the most striking projects presented, its description here raised a BS alert:
SKALAR is an intense journey through the cycle of the human emotional experience. The full spectrum of emotional experiences is triggered by ever-changing tonalities in light, sound, and motion. Feelings of awe, surprise, exhilaration, anticipation, and overwhelm are created, explored, and repeated in cycles throughout the piece, providing a collective and yet highly individual emotional experience.
A quick search online revealed that this comes directly from the artist’s own statement. But collectively, the texts provided by the artists are all so numbingly oblique that I assumed an uncredited author wrote them.
The curation of the presented works felt a little arbitrary; some of the works are awfully similar to one another in visual style and/or concept. The credited Chief Editor is Wang Shaoqiang, a professor at the Guangzhou Academy of Fine Arts (who also founded the book’s imprint, Sandu Publishing), so the absence of any critical text was doubly disappointing.
Many, but not all, of the projects are presented with QR codes linking to online resources (and yes, I had to download a QR reader to my phone to access these, as I haven’t used or needed one in years). Watching video of the projects, one realizes quickly how much was lost in transforming them to print: animation, kinetic motion, dimensionality, and audio are integral components of so many of these works.
I suspect that the predominant context here – the dark room activated with colorful light – ‘is what it is,’ and won’t change much over the next decade or so. For those of us working in multimedia, it’s no longer novel, but the opportunity to engage in a truly immersive media space remains rare and awe-inspiring for most audiences. I hope that, as this genre of art matures, its creators work beyond abstractions and begin to grapple with more challenging content and ideas.
Still, New Media Installation is a book of dazzling images, and one that I’ll inevitably reach for as a reference for years to come when conceptualizing immersive projection spaces.