Thursday, November 09, 2006

ART+COM

(An image from Art+com's design team)

New Media to the max! At least that’s the experience that we had on Monday evening after attending a lecture with Prof. Joachim Sauter of the New Media design firm called Art+com. Prof. Sauter has been working in the field of New Media for the past 20 years, is a professor at Berlin’s prestigious Universität der Künste, was a co-founder of Art+com in 1988, and is the firm’s current design director. Art+com and its 60 employees undertake commissions from various clients, usually in the cultural sector, to create New Media projects that push the boundaries of art, technology, and design, and how they interact with the public.

Prof. Sauter showed us 6 projects that Art+com has created or on which it is currently working in order to illustrate the firm’s creative nature. Although all of the projects we learned about were incredibly innovative, for the sake of being concise, I’ll simply describe two. The first project was one of the firm’s earlier endeavors, and focused on creating a more tangible link between a painting and its spectator through a technological interaction in which the composition of the painting was altered by the spectator’s gaze upon it. This was achieved through positioning a camera behind the painting, which was actually displayed on a screen, and tracking the reflections of light in the spectator’s eyes. This feed was then sent to a PC, which in turn sent the data stream to some sort of numeric device that used the light pattern to scramble the image of the painting on the screen.

The second project that Prof. Sauter showed us is currently under development by Art+com, and features an interactive design for a walkway in a train station. The walkway consists of a board with a screen that covers a combination of LED lights, water, and sand, which, through a program that Art+com created, projects the illusion of ripples in water as someone walks along the board. As if that weren’t inventive enough, the pattern of the electronic ripples then creates real ripples in a pool located next to the walkway. Prof. Sauter also showed us several projects created by students at the Universität der Künste, including one of a fairly “simple” design for a robotic arm. The arm moves in response to human touch, and the motions it creates suggest that it does or does not like the touch, thus making the robotic arm appear to be a living creature. As such, once people noticed it was animated, they were usually very gentle with the arm, as one would be with a pet.

The evening’s conversation took an interesting turn when Prof. Sauter was asked to comment upon the increasingly popular practice of displaying or installing media art on buildings. Prof. Sauter marked the difference between the media façades that Art+com produces and the media screens that other companies produce (and that we’ve also learned about) by saying that he prefers façades to screens because they are more dynamic; they have the potential to interact with an environment and the people in it (e.g. ripple walkway) than a screen that simply projects static images whether a person is near it or not. After hearing both sides of the façade/screen debate, however I can see the merits of both. Media screens allow art to be seen in public places, and as such they have the potential to draw new people to the medium of media art. The emphasis that Prof. Sauter places on the interactive nature of his firm’s media façades is also very appealing because the façades are actually influenced by people in the environment; their presence really matters, and they can impact the media environment around them.

One question that I have about dismissing the interactive nature of media screens altogether is: if a media screen isn’t influenced by peoples’ movements, but instead influences the movements of people, doesn’t that still make it interactive? For example, on Wednesday evening Susanne Jaschko, a freelance media curator, talked to us about media screens (yes, that’s the third talk we’ve heard about them), and she mentioned a project that took place in Rotterdam, in the Netherlands. This project consisted of a projection of a photograph on the side of a building, with the artist intending to have people interact with the photograph by standing in front of the projection light and placing their shadows over the figures in the photo. The spectators, however, ended up playing with their shadows and interacting with other peoples’ instead of really connecting with the photograph. So, even though this was a static media screen projection, people still interacted with it and sort of changed the look of the screen (and thus environment) by playing with it.

Another thing that Susanne said that I found to be very interesting was that media façades and media screens bring a new identity to the building, and thus the neighborhood, and essentially the city, by allowing people to see all three in a new way. A projection on an old building might make people look at it for the first time in years, and perhaps see it as a beautiful structure. I think this is a good progression of thought, as it could lead to the development of a new attitude towards a previously unacknowledged or negatively considered neighborhood (that’s not very grammatically correct, but I can’t think of anything else). I guess what I’m trying to say is that I like the idea of urban renovation (beutification) through art very much.