Beyond the canvas: High tech art installations break free from traditional mediums

John Curley,

The year is 2010, and I'm at my first BabyCastles arcade gaming event in New York. Around me, people are working on games, talking about games, playing games, and being interviewed about games. Deep Sea's creator Robin Arnott is beside me, enthusing about a coffin on a still-unoccupied stage.

"I want to get one," the Austin-based sound designer tells me. "Can you imagine how much more immersive Deep Sea would be if players had to get into one of these to play the game?"

Deep Sea is his experiment in sensory deprivation, a familiar idea—the battle between man and monster at the bottom of the ocean—delivered with unfamiliar tools. Instead of using the traditional mouse and keyboard or even a console controller, Deep Sea uses a gas mask with blacked-out eyes, noise-canceling headphones, an archaic flight controller, and an unsettling caveat: Your adversary can hear you breathe.

indiePub Games
Robin Arnott (left) demonstrates Deep Sea at SXSW 2011.

It's that little twist that brings the whole project home. Trapped in a stifling, artificially induced blackness, each gasp of air can seem too loud, too frantic. Deep Sea doesn't just intimate the things so many of us fear; it puts us back under the blankets, hands over our ears, as we wish the bogeyman away.

Neither new nor strictly the province of small-time visionaries, physical installations like Deep Sea come in all shapes and sizes. They're wild, eclectic, frequently experimental, sometimes commercial—sometimes not.

In Paris, there was once a building that housed numerous video game-related exhibits and could "hear, smell, feel and see" its visitors. In New York's Museum of Art and Design, an immersive, room-sized 3D Ms. Pac-Man game. Elsewhere, avant-garde game designers have been reappropriating Atari 2600 controllers and trampolines to make games that take people out of their chairs while big brands turn physical installations into potent advertisements.

“I think we see certain kinds of installations as a novelty because they don't really fit our idea of a certain legacy.”

—Robin Arnott

A homemade arcade cabinet at a BabyCastles event in 2011. [Photo: Christina Xu/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)]

Is there any commonality between them all? Just one, and it's that tactile connection between the audience and the project. Physical installations do more than just exist on a two-dimensional panel; they have a habit of being multi-sensory experiences and of transmogrifying spectators into active participants.

Long story short, they're kind of, well, physical, and that's what makes it all so bloody exciting.

Not just for games

Of course, interactive installations like this go beyond the realm of gaming. Combinations of art and tech are all around you if you know where to look, and they're easily missed if you don't. On 5th Avenue somewhere in New York City, a Cartier shopfront plays host to Zigelbaum + Coelho's Reach. It's an understatedly elegant setup: High-powered sensors and mechanized boxes work in tandem with the hand gestures of passers-by; a flip of the wrist is enough to control which glittering piece of jewelry get put on display.

Zigelbaum + Coelho
A passer-by checks out Zigelbaum + Coelho's Reach project.

In a video made with the Creators Project, Jamie Zigelbaum, one half of the design studio, asked, “Jewelry displays and window displays are so pristine and untouchable and you see all these beautiful things in there, but how could you let the people outside the store interact with the stuff inside the store, in a way that allowed you to extend your body into the window?”

Meanwhile, on the West Coast, artist Leo Villareal is about to turn the western portion of the San Francisco Bay Bridge into a nearly two-mile-long light show. The Bay Lights, as it's called, involves stringing LEDs on the bridge's suspender cables, and when the installation is up and running in March, it will turn the bridge into a shimmering spectacle high above San Francisco Bay.

More examples exist elsewhere, of course, but there's a reason that they flit under the radar—most are too functional to evoke media excitement. Robin Arnott notes:

"This may sound really evasive, but I hope it makes sense. Physical installations are everywhere. The Xbox 360 is a physical installation, as is the New York Stock Exchange. In a different way, so is the International Games Festival. I think we see certain kinds of installations as a novelty because they don't really fit our idea of a certain legacy. Seen as an game in itself, Deep Sea is a novelty because it's physical-installation-y-ness is incompatible with many of the other goals games usually have (like to make money, or even reach an audience). But as a prototype for future work (which it also is), it fits a less novel story—it's just R&D.”

John Curley,

That said, there is also nothing wrong with novelties. It's one of the reasons that Burning Man—an annual week-long celebration of community, artwork, absurdity, decommodification, and revelry in Nevada's harsh Black Rock Desert—draws tens of thousands of visitors each year. (If you're thinking of attending Burning Man at some point, start by reading the Burning Man Survival Guide.)

“The first thing to understand about Burning Man is that it's a multi-leveled experiment. As an event, it's an experiment in temporary community that values and rewards free expression," Arnott observes.

He continues:

"For the individuals participating, it's an experiment in human nature, and the way you relate your human nature freely with the community: how you build and are your community. Faced with a community that vanishes a week after it begins and systemically removes or replaces (many of) the systems we take for granted is totally humbling. You can't master that—the rules change under your feet the moment you look away, and (almost) all that's left is human nature and love."

Like Burning Man, New York's BabyCastles has seen its fair share of physical installations. Though some would call it label it as an indie event or an exhibition space, Kunal Gupta, one of the creative minds powering BabyCastles, claims that it's still choosing a direction. "What it was was an attempt to bring independent games out of a niche art form, which just made no sense considering the popularity of the commercial medium, into something more participatory and public for a lot of kinds of people, even 'most' people, and in that sense it was a sort of time-based project that's mostly finished."

Samuel Huber
The crowd at a BabyCastles event.

Kunal sees physical installations as a venue for the work. "It's how and why you play the game. Simple things like the controls matter a lot. These physical installations are all kind of 'hook' projects, contextualizing a work and making it take space in a way in which most human bodies will find themselves interacting with them, sharing them, conversing about them, and not just the most steadfast and patient of gamers," Kunal says. "And part of the message of the installations is to differentiate games from a history of other screen-based work, and give people's brain's something different to latch onto when they see an 'arcade', or a 'game to play!'".

With the growth of institutions like BabyCastles and mounting support from non-game-related outfits—San Francisco's Museum of Modern Art and the Eyebeam Art + Technology Center in New York are two excellent examples—it looks like we can expect more from this medium. It's hard to imagine where it might go from here, but in a time informed with social isolation, physical installations that get us to do more than passively stare at a screen may be just what the doctor ordered.

[Top photo: John Curley,]

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