The reason higher education combines “arts” and “sciences” is because all art is, in essence, an emotional and psychological experiment. People want to experience joy, fear, ennui, etc., but aren’t always able (or willing) to experience the events that would normally create such intense feelings. In this regard, the artist is the mad scientist and the audience members are all rats in her maze.
“I’m usually more interested in what’s happening outside the screen than inside the screen,” says Matt Hudgins, videogame developer and creator of Speculo, an art installation that uses a digital camera to record the viewer and filters it through a kaleidoscopic effect. “That’s how I feel about all the games I make. I try to make people do weird things outside of them.”
The “Rules and Play” exhibit at Lexington, Kentucky’s Living Arts and Science Center is a collection of interactive art installations that runs from June 24th until August 26th. Some of the pieces represent traditional games. For example, Robin Baumgarten’s Line Wobbler (2014) has clear instructions, rules, and goals. The audience member uses a joystick to move a green light up and down an electronic rope and waggles it to the side in order to “attack” the red lights that appear. John Meister, one of the organizers of the exhibit, called Line Wobbler a “one-dimensional dungeon crawler.”
However, most of the installations did not follow the mold of traditional games, which have explicit objectives and clearly defined end states. In fact, several of the pieces stayed true to the spirit of an “interactive art exhibit” and allowed for broader audience interpretation and experimentation. Samantha Rausch’s Figure 8 fills an entire room with a worm crafted out of purple and orange cloth. It sits atop several pedestals and, as people move around to see it from different angles, motion sensors change the lighting and cause speakers to emit an electronic whine.
Down the hall, Fong Tron—created by Andrew Allred and Chris Winninger—invites two gallery participants to hold a touch screen. Each screen has two glowing circles that each participant can move around independently. As they move the dots, the sound is distorted in different ways. And if the two people look on a nearby monitor, they see both participants dots (instead of just their own) and learn that they can coordinate their dots and harmonize the audio. “I like the idea of seeing the relationship between an image and sound,” says Winninger. “And how you can represent things in two domains. So you can have visual representation that means something in terms of sound, and vice versa. [With Fong Tron] I was kind of trying to tease at the boundaries of computer science and art, and algorithms and art.”
In a corner of one of the rooms sits a bed with a canopy that suspends dozens of cloth strips cut to varying lengths. Above the strips are lights that change colors based on the movement of the strips.
The creator of dream a bit bigger darling, Amanda Hudgins (disclosure: Amanda Hudgins also writes for Kill Screen), laid on her back next to a friend as they waved at the strips like cats. Her friend explained that she’d been having extreme anxiety for the week building up to the exhibit. “I’ve been having anxiety every day for weeks, said Hudgins’s friend, “and this is the calmest I’ve felt.”
And despite the bed with canopy, a more elaborate interactive experience on show is Kyle Seeley’s Emily is Away (2015). Against a wall adorned with informational posters sits a dorm room desk with a laptop and various college paraphernalia.
A Sony Discman with headphones has a mix that includes Green Day and post-Californication Red Hot Chili Peppers. In the desk drawer are Allen wrenches, an instruction manual for an IKEA bed, and a pencil sketch of original superheroes.
The idea is to create the environment of a college student circa 2003, and the entrée for this piece is the laptop with a faux AOL Instant Messenger lookalike where the participant can engage in scripted conversations that lead down branching paths. While the software could just as easily be released in a web browser, something about wearing the headphones and sitting at a desk reeking of particle board creates a unique experience that can’t be had in the comfort of one’s home.
Three virtual reality exhibits are also on display. Gardens by Ralph VR is a polygonal garden. At the opening, a young girl plucked virtual flowers and said, “Mom, can we get this?” Her mother laughed and said that the girl’s father had asked the same thing.
Babel On by Al Baker is a planetarium exhibit that, according to its description, “simulates an ascension of the Tower of Babel.” And the third VR experience is part of a collection called Art Alive: Inuit Art Brought Alive by Pinnguaq that celebrates the work of Inuit artist Pudloo Padlat. The audience member sits in a chair with the VR headset and observes polygonal oceanic creatures, such as penguins and whales.
Virtual Reality has dominated the news cycle lately, but the technology is only now available to the public, and it will be even longer before the mainstream is comfortable using it (or can afford it). Since the Living Arts and Science Center is mostly known for children’s programming, “Rules and Play” is able to reach a different audience than the typical trade show. Plus, RunJumpDev, one of the organizers of the event, is a nonprofit dedicated to educating people about game development. In an interview earlier this year, their president—John Meister—said, “They’re not all going to go into the game industry. But they’ll learn to program or do graphic design or write. They’ll all get to work in teams. And basically they’ll take those skills and can go into any of those industries.”
Videogames have a stigma because the majority of audiences don’t know what sorts of things are being done through interactivity. And in most people’s minds, playing a “game” requires a certain investment in time and attention. By highlighting methods of input and user agency in “art installations,” people can better understand game mechanics and their uses without dedicating the effort into “playing a game.” While this is a pretty weak facade, it’s enough to get people engaged. It’s not unlike calling comic books “graphic novels”; it doesn’t change the content of the medium, just the perceptions of a handful of snobs.
The audience appeal of an exhibit like “Rules and Play” is to learn new ways that art and media can accept and reinterpret input. This could be something as simple as filtering video data through a kaleidoscope or transferring touchscreen gestures into audio samples. This could also have greater implications. After all, several of the installations used motion sensors, which means that they are tracking movement.
The recent success of Niantic’s Pokémon Go has forced the mainstream media to question how our interactions can be recorded and transformed. In an age where phones record people’s deaths and drones are used to kill suspected murderers, the ways we interact with technology are constantly evolving. And yes, Line Wobbler is a far cry from the dystopia of Paul Verhoeven’s RoboCop (1987), but that’s exactly the point. While the artists are learning from how people interact with their pieces, we—as audience members—are learning how these technologies can be used and abused. And the more we know, the less likely we are to become unwilling participants in someone else’s experiment.
Exhibits like “Rules and Play” show how the mad scientists can work with us maze rats, not against them.
“Rules and Play” runs from June 24th, 2016 until August 26th. On two occasions, the artists will be available for a gallery. Those nights are June 24th and July 15th.
All photos taken by and belong to Malinda O’Quinn.