Matt Adams workshop tijdens DISH erfgoed conferentie
— On December 8, 2009 Matt Adams from the UK-based, internationally renowned artist's group Blast Theory ran a pre-conference workshop organised by Virtueel Platform in Amsterdam for the Digital Strategies for Heritage (DISH) conference.
Report by Rachel Miles
Combining online games, wireless networks and virtual worlds, Blast Theory’s art and research focused interactive projects have been created for gallery, street and television spaces. In particular, their most recent work has centred on conceiving new uses for location aware technologies in public spaces, creating non-commercial content by means of already present technologies.
Matt Adams was invited to lead the workshop due to Blast Theory’s reputation for projects that offer significant insights in to the development of creative and engaging presentations of cultural content with new (mobile) technologies. For the heritage arena this is increasintly a valuable combination. While initially designed for delegates of DISH, the workshop attracted participants from a wide, yet specialised, range of interested and engaged people, including professionals from museums, libraries, archives and other heritage institutions and organizations interested in the use of digital technologies for engaging the public and creative ways for making content accessible, interaction designers and freelance digital strategy specialists, artists and filmmakers, educators, PhD candidates, from a variety of countries including the US, Poland, Estonia, Switzerland and the UK.
The day began with an in-depth presentation by Adams of Blast Theory's work, which was attended by an extra audience of journalists and art critics following a masterclass organised by Virtueel Platform, and more than twenty Masters level art students from art academies in Amsterdam and Rotterdam. This was followed by a participatory workshop with the core group of some 25 professionals outlined above, using ideas touched on in the morning session to develop projects for heritage institutions that considered ways new (mobile) technologies can be fruitfully galvanised to offer the public cultural content.
Blast Theory presentation
Adams began by sketching Blast Theory’s history of working together as an artists group since 1991, including a mention of key partners such Nottingham University's Mixed Reality Lab. This was followed by a detailed analysis of a number of works related directly to the heritage field through their development in the context of gallery and museum settings.
‘Flypad’ (2009) was a project commissioned for a new public cultural project and building called “The Public,” in the marginalised area of West Bromwich, just outside Birmingham, England. “Flypad” and its creation within the context of this new cultural project was offered by Adams as an example of the difficulties and limits to creating an exhibit within very specific parameters. Given that the area of West Bromwich had no bookshop or cinema for a community of about 137,000, “The Public” was conceived of to enrich access to cultural content and activities within the area. The hub of this access was the creation of a building constructed with a winding ramp in the centre reaching from the ground to the top with exhibits placed along it.
The space in the building given to Blast Theory for their project proposal rested on a U-shaped space at the top of the ramp. As such, patrons would have to approach the exhibit in almost single file as they ascended the ramp. Adding to this physical parameter was a request that Blast Theory create an exhibit that could accommodate 240 visitors an hour (working out to 15 seconds per person) and that must engage and be accessible to 7 year olds and up. With these kinds of parameters, as Adams outlined, a number of critical issues arose: how to deal with the physical structure that moves people slowly and single file along the ramp ultimately leading to a traffic jam of bodies, long-wait times for the exhibit, or people ultimately by-passing the exhibit because of the wait-time, and the age requirement issue given the inherent “dumbing-down” of many exhibits that are meant for a wide age range, yet designed for the minimum age.
Within the physical and functional parameters given to them, Blast Theory proposed a 12-player augmented reality game that allowed participants to fly an avatar around the atrium of the building. Standing and moving on “flypads” with screens in front of them, the 12 stations installed in the round, each player uses their bodyweight to move their flying avatar, viewing the movement of all avatars on projections screens. As each person flies their avatar around the space they can hit each other, and as they do, their limbs and skin combine, switch and grow making it increasingly more difficult to differentiate one’s from another’s.
Because of the issues that arose from these parameters, Blast Theory gave a great deal of thought to the physical necessities of their exhibit in relation to the physical structure of the building and the way people would move through the space. The committee selecting the commission liked their project because it explicitly considered the way the building space was designed in relation to the way this would offer an experience for the audience in approaching the installation and moving through the space and the positive affect this has on waiting time.
In particular, the 12-person game with screens visible to those around, offered a number of people simultaneous access to the exhibit fostering interaction between them. Considering the minimum age requirement for the exhibit, and their need to create a work that offered interaction to a number of people simultaneously to account for the amount of people it should accommodate an hour, they had to think of a way to create relationships amongst these 12 people with technology that was useable by a 7 year old, but also engaging for an adult. As such, the interface of the game and the avatar concept is particularly simple to use and understand, but the depth of the interaction and experience reveals itself, as Adams said, “through social structures, being able to see who else is playing the game,” - the ages, genders and ethnicities of fellow players are visible to you as you play.
You are Afraid
You are Afraid is a never realised project for the (then new) Dana Centre wing of the London Science Museum (2005). Blast Theory was asked to think about new forms of engagement, the possibility of enticing new audiences for the Dana Centre, and new ways of using the building aimed at adult audiences in the context of contemporary science. In the context of the recent London bombings, Blast Theory’s proposal was to create a science project on the theme of fear involving mass public participation.
A major question for the group was could you use audiences as interlocutors, how might this engage the audience, and can you bring imagination and play into this arena without dumbing it down? As preparation, they conducted research into the current audiences of the centre, mapped out the building and conducted literature research on fear. Their science project proposal included large-scale data collection using the audience as part of the research, live experiments where visitors could be actively involved, participants winning access to scientists, the generation of live debates, an online archive, and the publication of a magazine. While never fully realised, Blast Theory thoughtfully considered the “user journey experience” of the project: marketing at the outset that invited people to subscribe to a free story through publicity posters placed on the subway, subscribers are then invited to take part in SMS interviews about fear when the project would open, they can then browse and comment on interviews published online, experts on fear then give detailed feedback to chosen participant interviews, the results and photos from the interviews would then be published in a magazine sent to subscribers. At the Dana Centre building an exhibit installation would test participants responses to fear and build further on the fear-themed science project.
Ulrike and Eamon Compliant
Thirdly, Adams discussed one of Blast Theory’s most recent projects “Ulrike and Eamon Compliant” (2009). This particular work, as he pointed out, relates to the museum and heritage field as it is a more clearly defined artistic project because of its presentation as part of the 2009 Venice Biennale. In this work participants are asked to take on the identity of West German journalist-turned terrorist Ulrike Meinholf or Irish customs agent-turned terrorist Eamon Collins. With mobile phone in hand, a voice on the other end addresses the participant as the role they have chosen, guiding them through the streets of Venice. With each new conversation and request from the voice, the participant becomes more clearly aware of the hiding, spying, robbing and killing they (their role) has participated in, further collapsing their personal reality with that of the characters. This citywide narrative comes to a head when the participant is finally guided into a room where the artist asks them a series of questions, the participant often vacillating between answering them as their personal self and the character they have taken on.
Playing with the collision of reality and fictional tales that engage audience members in physical, intellectual and emotional participation, “Ulrike and Eamon Compliant” was a fruitful stepping-stone for Adams to discuss notions of interaction, engagement and agency in participatory works, particularly through the Q&A session that followed. When asked about the context in which they position their work especially in relationship to alternative reality games, Adams suggested that they “avoid things [they] hate and end up somewhere as a result of it.”
An example was a dislike for alternate reality games because their modes of interactivity often exclude those without the proper skills to be fully engaged. Blast Theory's point of departure, Adams explained, is not so much genre as ethics: how can you offer experiences that are accessible to many people that allow them to “speak meaningfully and in their own register”? For him, this is a matter of politics because it designates who is, and who is not invited or able to participate, and the allowances for what people can “give and take” from the particular work. With respect to the notion of interaction and the increasing buzz around it as a concept and practice, it is not necessarily more enhanced than linear media – some linear media, as he suggested, like certain videos or films give you more choices of positions and places to take the work than interactive projects, as many interactive works are very closed in the opportunities and experiences presented to the user through their design.
Many audience members were interested in the interacation with audiences and how dependent projects such as “Ulrike and Eamon Compliant” are on sustained audience participation: What happens if someone hangs up the phone in the middle of the game? According to Adams, the decision to stop is part of the meaning. He wishes that if someone decides to stop mid-game, that their decision to do so is meaningful to them - that if they chose the quit because, for example, they feel uncomfortable in the role, that their decision is personally impactful, motivated and meaningful. What tactics does Blast Theory use to entice audiences to become involved as most of their works are interactive and thus require participation? Tactics are different for different works, but uses artistic tools, seduction, micro-rewards, curiosity etc., all things that heritage institutions could strategise around to engage audiences at the outset of opening a new exhibition/presentation/campaign.
The over-arching aim of the workshop was to have participants think about “how mobile technologies and social media may offer new opportunities for the heritage and museum sectors.” Within this theme specific aims of the workshop covered learning about audiences, discussing new models of learning that utilise play, games and dialogue, the creation of an example exhibition that is envisioned as a campaign, and to question and critique each others examples.
Part One: Analysing the Audience
Considering the difficulties in creating exhibits and experiences for family audiences as they are often “dumbed down” to suit the abilities of 7 year olds (the often used minimum age requirement to test exhibits), Adams proposed that workshop participants consider dual audiences when creating exhibits: 7 year olds and “informed adults” simultaneously. In this way, the creation of an exhibit necessitates considering a diverse range of opinions, knowledge, skills etc. that offers richness across these different audiences. In particular, Adams highlighted that answers to this problem do not necessarily come through technological solutions, such as the way an interface is designed, but rather the kinds of content, social relationships and experiences that are offered.
To tackle this issue, Adams remarked that it is integral to consider the “landscape” of one's audience: “what are they doing”, “where are they spending their time,” and “which activities are declining and which are growing?” As such, the first workshop task was to individually develop a list of what 7 year olds are doing now, and then do the same for informed adults. The sticky notes upon which participants compiled their list of activities, tasks or behaviours were stuck to the wall, in a group activity, first divided between the 7 year old and informed adult categories, and then further divided into thematic categories within the age group. For example, 7 year olds are playing computer games, participating in extra-curricular activities, testing the limits of their bodies, and playing through mixing different kinds of worlds or realities etc. that the group decided falls under the category of “playing.”
Adults are self-branding through deciding where and what to publish online, and maintaining a number of different identities in social media spaces depending on what they present about themselves and for who, which the group felt falls under the category of “performing,” but could also relate to “changing privacy.” What materialized from this exercise was a rainbow coloured wall-map of behaviours, interests, activities and attitudes - a visual landscape of the dual audience that could and should be considered when designing exhibits that caters to a specific group of people, or across them.
Part Two: Desiging a Campaign
The second workshop session focused on the creation of a campaign for a heritage building/institution, having participants split into different groups. A campaign, Adams articulated, is perhaps a more fruitful way to conceive of an exhibition, considering it “an organised course of action to achieve a particular goal.” In this way, one can more easily contemplate the goal of the project: is it to get people to use an archive, to learn about environmental issues, to get people to learn about the history of a building and to entice them to return repeatedly etc. For the workshop exercise, the campaign goal for each group was to “simultaneously engage 7 to 16 year olds and their parents on a complex idea” by “either [bridging] these audiences simultaneously or, more likely, [communicating] in two distinct registers/voices” for the different audiences. Furthermore, participants were asked to consider “how new technologies and platforms [can] address this problem” when designing their campaign.
With these goals in mind, groups were asked to select a building or institution for, ideally a site that one of the group participants is connected to, and then develop a campaign with a theme for it. In the development of their campaign groups were asked by Matt, through his helpful posting of a thoughtful and comprehensive list, to consider what needs to be thought of before it begins, such as how users will hear about the project, how will they share this with their friends, how will information about what the campaign/exhibition offers be communicated etc.; during the campaign, such as what will users be asked to do, who will they do this with, how is this a change from what the building/institution is already offering, how will participation be encouraged and how will it be rewarded etc.; and after the campaign, such as how will it end, how will it make them feel, how will users record and share their experience, how can they take the content they developed during their experience of the project to other places, how useful was the experience, and how will the institution record and archive the project online after it finishes?
After a fervent 30-minute work session, groups presented their campaigns to each other. Results spanned a diverse scope of buildings/institutions and themes. Two groups chose NEMO, an Amsterdam based science and technology centre primarily targeted at young audiences as their site, one focusing on food education, “the science on your plate,” that involved e-food diaries and a link to classroom study, the other group centered on water education asking NEMO visitors to bring in their water to test it and use it as a currency throughout the water exhibition.
One group chose Beeld en Geluid, the Netherlands public broadcasting archive, focusing on a educational programme that uses archival material and SMS to illustrate the impact of mediated weather, sending out falsified weather reports as an enticement for users to to visit the institution for the campaign.
Another group based their campaign around the New York Public Library as a historical geography and locative media narrative project. The project would use more traditional media like pay phones around New York City that would offer participants various community and personal stories connected to the location, for example related to intra-city migration.
Also related to historical geography was a group that selected Amsterdam’s City Archive as its institution. As a way to foster more social cohesion, the campaign was designed to look at the genealogy of where you live; both your home and other homes in Amsterdam. Using the archive as source material, the campaign would develop a number of interesting histories around specific houses in the city that would connect to blue-tooth technology and relay the narratives to participants as they passed them while sitting on the bus for example. This project would also connect to an online site where one could re-create the atmosphere and cultural specificity of a person from a different year and publish it online, publish research they have done on a house in Amsterdam, and view a map that locates the histories of various houses in the city etc.
As a way to think critically about the design of their campaigns and to use the minds of other workshop participants, each group posed three questions to the other groups about their proposal. The groups then discussed these questions and presented an answer back to the inquiry they found most interesting. Questions ranged from how to more tightly integrate the campaign with the building, what is the long-lasting value of the project, if the project is based around locative media is there a specific exhibition space or base, or should there be one, and how do you encourage people to contribute narratives to the project?
Adams’ workshop offered expert guidance in negotiating the tricky issues of designing for diverse audiences and other parameters when looking to use social media and mobile technology to engage and interest a vast public in the heritage field. A comment Adams made towards the end of the day very nicely encapsulates what seems to be his interest and understanding of how interactive projects should be conceived that explicitly considers the relationship between those designing projects and the audiences that use them: “the most useful lens to apply is the idea of dialogue. Visitors want to produce as much as they consume, they want to speak as much as they listen – visitors want to contribute.”
This point of departure was reiterated the following morning in the opening keynote address of the DISH conference, by Susan Chun, who had also attended the workshop. She ended her lecture with a quote from Adams: “Our visitors want to produce as much as consume, to speak as much as to listen.” She added “When they talk we have the tools to hear them”.