Methodologies and reasons for exploring meaningful group experience through multi-user interactive art
Traditionally, people might wish to have a solitary experience at an art gallery. It’s hard to experience anything of meaning viewing the Mona Lisa (da Vinci, 1503) when ‘the mass of people is 12 rows deep’ (The Guardian, 2004) and ‘if you happen to find yourself alone at an exhibition, you would consider yourself to be very lucky.’ (teamLab, n.d.)
Perhaps this is, in part, because, ‘traditional media, such as paintings, do not change in relation to the presence of viewers or their behavior’ (teamLab, n.d.). The introduction of interactivity reframes this and, ‘if the interaction of other people with an artwork creates change that we feel is beautiful, then the presence of others can in itself become a positive element.’ (teamLab, n.d.)
When a group of people are engaged in the same experience, a profound feeling that “this is happening to all of us together” can arise. This paper explores the facets of this feeling, how it can be facilitated and heightened through multi-user interactive installation art and why doing so can create meaningful experiences.
Initially I will define the key terms and discuss the value of art in the context of this exploration. Then I will examine group experience from a philosophical and theoretical angle, within the context of interactive art. Finally I will present a range of methodologies through which artists can facilitate multi-user interaction, using examples of existing artworks and interfaces.
Defining the key terms
What is a group?
A group can be as small as two people or as large as the whole population of earth. In many examples, the group is physically present in the same space, but they could also be distributed around the planet.
What is multi-user interactive art?
The majority of work referenced in this paper are installations, taking place in a physical location; a gallery, a festival or a public space such as a city street. Some are games or online experiences. All the works discussed are suitable for multiple people to experience together.Â Interaction is further defined later.
What is a meaningful experience?
A meaningful experience may be one which keeps our attention in the present moment, a feat which is harder than it sounds. Beginner meditators often notice that, ‘the mind is seized constantly by thoughts, feelings, inner conversations, daydreams, fantasies, sleepiness, opinions, theories, judgments about thoughts and feelings, judgments about judgments – a never-ending torrent of disconnected mental events’ (Varela et al., 1991, p25) and that ‘there is an actual difference between being present and not being present’ (Varela et al., 1991, p25). An awareness of the present can be cultivated through meditation practice, but it can also happen when something is so engaging that our phenomenological experience demands attention.
‘Even the simplest or most pleasurable of daily activities – walking, eating, conversing, driving, reading, waiting, thinking, making love, planning, gardening, drinking, remembering, going to a therapist, writing, dozing, emoting, sightseeing all pass rapidly in a blur of abstract commentary’ (Varela et al., 1991, p25). A meaningful experience is one which breaks this procession of unnoticed activity.
Meaningful experiences are also those which have some significant effect on a person. Perhaps it could give them a profound feeling or trigger a strong emotion. It could uncover a new perspective on a matter. Something could be meaningful because it provided an opportunity for human connection, between friends, family or strangers. Something could also be meaningful simply because it is enjoyable and captivating.
Meaningful experiences are those which are worth having.
The value of the question
Group experience is not interesting only in an abstract philosophical sense but also in terms of how it relates to contemporary society. Group experiences in interactive art can be used as a tool for good.
Humans are, in some ways, more connected to each other than ever before. 90% of households in Great Britain have internet access (Office for National Statistics, 2018) meaning we are able to contact friends, relatives and even strangers around the globe at a moment’s notice. Yet ‘a survey by the University of Sheffield for the BBC concluded that a sense of community had weakened in almost every area of the UK over the past 30 years’ (Mental Health Foundation, 2010). It seems the provision of connectivity is not enough to engender a sense of closeness or community, or to provide opportunities to engage in a meaningful way.
If social media is no place to be social, then where is? Unfortunately, ‘Britain’s shared spaces are vanishing’ (The Guardian, 2018). Austerity means that hundreds of libraries, youth centres, pubs and clubs have closed since 2010 (BBC News, 2016) (The Guardian, 2018). The decline in religion leaves ‘churches reduced to silent visitor attractions’ (The Guardian, 2018) and the community value of churchgoing goes with it. Perhaps these spaces have been replaced by cafes, our era’s ‘pre-eminent gathering space’ but there, ‘most people seem hunched over their laptops… oblivious to everyone else. This is the opposite of the places where the best kind of chaotic, unexpected experiences can happen and you might end up falling into conversations with complete strangers’ (The Guardian, 2018).
Art as a tool
Where then, might you have a chaotic or unexpected experience? The kind that could result in connecting with a complete stranger? Maybe art can succeed in providing for our emotional needs, where technology, religion and the social spaces of the past are failing. ‘Art can be a form of self help’ argues philosopher Alain de Botton (2013), before quoting Mark Rothko, who once said, “You’ve got sadness in you, I’ve got sadness in me, and my works of art are places where the two sadnesses can meet and therefore both of us need feel less sad” (Rothko, n.d. cited Botton, 2013).
Yet if art has this capacity to provide a medium for connection, it is not always utilised. You cannot ‘show up at an art gallery and say, “I’m here because I’m terrified of death”’ (Botton, 2013). Rather, we are expected to politely observe and consider the works silently; ‘we are simply not encouraged to bring ourselves to works of art’ (de Botton, 2013). Conversely, interactive art demands the audience include themselves. What’s more, if a still painting should connect a viewer to the artist, then perhaps an interactive work can connect an audience to each other.
This attitude is exemplified in Meow Wolf’s work, which provides a welcoming and accessible place for people to engage with each other through the medium of unpretentious, interactive exhibits (Meow Wolf, 2015- ) (Fig 1). Founder Vince Kadlubek recounts the time a mother thanked him because their work was ‘the first thing that has pulled [her] son away from video games all summer long’ (Kadlubek, 2015) and it was then that Meow Wolf realised the potential for their work to provide a much needed space for meaningful experience, by being ‘radically inclusive’ (Kadlubek, 2015).
There are a variety of phenomena which emerge from group behaviour: patterns like those revealed in Flight Patterns (2006) (Fig 2), Aaron Koblin’s visualisations of flight paths across America; or abilities like those discussed in The Wisdom of Crowds (2005), James Surowiecki’s exploration of what a crowd can achieve that an individual could not.
Here I am particularly focused on phenomena which the group members themselves experience. I am not concerned with the group’s output or the things it can achieve but, rather, what it is like to be part of a group.
In 1969, Apollo 11 touched down on the moon and an estimated 530 million people watched the same video feed, all across the globe (NASA, n.d.), making it one of the largest examples of shared experience of all time. While Neil Armstrong was the individual taking the first steps onto the surface, even his own famous words, “one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind” (NASA, n.d.) show that this was considered a shared accomplishment.
Watching the moon landing was not an interactive experience but it was certainly a shared one. In an online forum thread where people who watched the moon landing live were asked about their experience, almost all of those who told a story did so by referring to other people, saying things like, “I’ll never forget the look on the faces of my parents” and, “We were all rapt with attention” (reddit, 2018). While the moon landing in itself was profound and momentous, there is also a profundity to the sharedness of the event, “It was a global event; people, all over the world, were proud” (reddit, 2018). People felt the moon landing was happening to all of them together.
Researchers have found that sharing an experience with another person, even without communicating, intensifies that experience (Boothby, Clark & Bargh, 2014). In a study, participants were placed in a room along with an experimenter posing as a second participant. They were asked to taste two chocolates and rate them. In fact, the two chocolates were the same, but the study was contrived so that the participant tasted one chocolate at the same time as the experimenter, and the other while the experimenter was engaged in a different activity in the room. Results showed that ‘participants reported liking the chocolate significantly more during the shared experience than during the unshared experience’ (Boothby, Clark & Bargh, 2014).
In a second version of the experiment, the chocolate given to participants was bitter and objectively unpleasant. In this case, participants responded that the chocolate ‘tasted worse when the experience was shared than when it was not shared’ (Boothby, Clark & Bargh, 2014). The shared experience was not necessarily more enjoyable but, rather, more intense. This phenomenon can be utilised by artists to create more affecting and therefore meaningful work, by facilitating shared experience.
Another commonly referenced phenomenon which leads to intense experience is that of flow; when a person is totally immersed in a task. This leads to a pleasant lack of experience of the self, where ‘identity disappears from existence’ and a person ‘doesn’t have enough attention left over to monitor how his body feels, or his problems at home’ (Csikszentmihalyi, 2008).
Is it possible to create a shared experience of flow in a group? Oarsmen have a word for the moments when they feel their boat powered by ‘all eight oars in the water together, the synchronization almost perfect’; they call this feeling ‘swing’ (Halberstam cited Surowiecki, 2005, p176). Reminiscent of the way that a flow state results in an individual being lifted out of their experience of existence, oarsmen describe how ‘in moments like that, the boat seemed to lift right out of the water’ (Halberstam cited Surowiecki, 2005, p176). While an artist in a state of flow might feel that ‘his hand seems to be moving by itself’ (Csikszentmihalyi, 2008), synchronised oarsmen feel ‘as if there’s only one person […] rowing’ (Surowiecki, 2005, p176).
In flow and swing, a person is immersed in their self-less reality and feels enjoyably removed from their usual self-conscious experience. Csikszentmihalyi asserts that flow could be what makes ‘life meaningful and worth doing’ (Csikszentmihalyi, 2008). For installation artists, to facilitate ‘swing’ is a way to create meaningful shared experience.
A group of people can share an intentional state or emotion. It is quite common to colloquially describe emotions as belonging to more than one person; one might say, ‘“We are very excited about this news!”’ but, ‘it could be assumed that in fact what the speaker means is that each person is excited’ (Gilbert, 2014, p7). Is it possible for an emotion to exist outside of the individual members of the group, as a collective emotion felt by the group itself?
Building on Clark and Chalmers’ extended mind theory (1998), Jan Slaby explores the idea that emotions too can extend outside the physical self, into ‘environmental structures, social arrangements, interaction and artifacts’ (2014, p1), noting that traditional extended mind theory ‘has almost nothing to say about conscious experience’ (2014, p3) and that it is worth exploring this as a revision to the framework.
It is uncontroversial to say that an individual’s emotional state can be affected by the people around them. Slaby cites how ‘being drawn into the euphoria of an exuberant party’ can ‘literally take hold of our lived body, making us move in the rhythm of the crowd’ (2014, p7).
The word ‘swing’ (Halberstam cited Surowiecki, 2005, p176) could also be used to describe the feeling one gets when taking part in an emotionally synchronised group like a ‘crowd of protestors or party people on the dance floor’; ‘we might have the feeling of temporarily “dissolving” […] sometimes approaching a trance-like state of absorption’ (Slaby, 2014, p8).
This phenomenon is a result of the interplay among each member of the group and its surroundings. It is such a direct consequence of the relational system that ‘it makes no sense to try and assign it a determinate location’ (Slaby, 2014, p10) and the question of whether it is each individual or the group itself having the emotion becomes irrelevant.
The salient point is that, just as ‘the delightful atmosphere of a valley or the homely atmosphere of a garden’ (BÃ¶hme, 2017, p13) can ‘seem to fill the space with a GefÃ¼hlston (feeling-tone), like a haze’ (BÃ¶hme, 2017, p14), a group of people can construct an emotional atmosphere which is experienced by each member. Of course it is also possible for an individual to observe the atmosphere without being caught up in it; ‘we can coldly register the jubilant atmosphere of a party while being sad and detached ourselves.’ (Slaby, 2014, p17) However, atmospheres are often affecting, and sometimes completely immersive.
Emotional atmospheres can even affect us physically, ‘such as when a joyful atmosphere is literally experienced as uplifting, as suddenly making us willing (and effortlessly able) to jump around’ (Slaby, 2014, p17). This again points to one’s body and self existing in an interplay with one’s surroundings, with the mind and the emotions extending out of the physical boundaries of an individual.
Jan Slaby’s paper concludes that ‘emotions experienced in virtue of an individual’s immersion in a collective can be such as to transform her emotionality in fundamental ways, giving rise to emotions different in kind from what she was capable of experiencing before’ (2014, p18). By creating work which facilitates emotional atmospheres, an installation artist can create meaningful experience by heightening participants’ emotions or even provoking emotions they were otherwise unable to access.
Consciousness is a strongly emergent phenomena, as it ‘is not deducible from physical facts’ (Chalmers, 2006, p4). Conversely, when complex and unexpected phenomena emerge in an unconscious system like an installation – such as patterns made by a swarm of programmed robots – this can be described as weak emergence because, while the emergent phenomenon may be unexpected, it is a deducible outcome from the inputs and programmed behaviours (Chalmers, 2006).
Chalmers argues that consciousness is the one and only ‘clear case of a strongly emergent phenomenon’ (2006, p.3). However, much in the way that any individual being’s consciousness emerges, ‘systematically determined by low-level facts without being deducible from those facts’ (Chalmers, 2006, p. 4), phenomena too emerges from groups, inevitably but not predictably or deducibly. Perhaps group behaviour can be seen as a second example of strong emergence, or at least a layer on top of the first, resulting directly from it. That is to say, group behaviour is undeducible because of the fact that the contributory individuals are conscious, but the behaviour that emerges is distinct from each individual’s behaviour.
Is it possible to say that consciousness emerges from a group? There is something it is like to be a human or a bat and, therefore, those beings are conscious (Nagel, 1974). Is there anything it is like to be a group?
A vital part of being conscious is the generation of a self, ‘the process that gives you the conscious experience of being someone’ (Metzinger, 2011). Through the generation of a self model we perceive ourselves as a whole and isolated entity. It is certain that many groups have an identity like this, especially when the group members share a strong ideology. It is hard to say whether this identity exists within each member or in the group itself. Perhaps it is only fair to say that there is something it is like to be in a group, but not something it is like to be a group.
Hans Bernhard Schmid argues that if ‘groups have complex intentional states’ then, ‘they have to have consciousness’ (2014, p2) but he acknowledges that ‘many philosophers believe that groups, corporations, or other collectives may have mental states, but deny that they may have conscious states. According to them, groups are genuine intenders and believers, but they are not experiencers, and they have no phenomenal awareness to go with their attitudes’ (Schmid, 2014,p5). His argument to the contrary centres around his ‘serious doubt concerning whether the idea of a mind without consciousness makes any sound sense’ (Schmid, 2014, p8). He argues that having intentions, beliefs and feelings constitutes a mind but whether that ‘mind’ is one that experiences itself is not proven.
The existence of group consciousness would be significant, as strongly emergent phenomena have ‘radical consequences’ and, if there are ‘phenomena whose existence is not deducible from the facts about the exact distribution of particles and fields throughout space and time (along with the laws of physics), then this suggests that new fundamental laws of nature are needed to explain these phenomena’ (Chalmers, 2006, p2).
It is not possible for a person to experience the consciousness of a group, just like one cell of a bat cannot experience being the bat. Yet, each person in a group would have an experience of what it is like to make up that superposed consciousness (while a cell, an unconscious entity, would not). This experience is surely one worth having.
In The Wisdom of Crowds (2005) James Surowiecki explores how a group can produce better results than an individual as long as certain conditions are met. One of these conditions is particularly relevant – aggregation. For a crowd to be wise, there must be a mechanism by which all the private opinions of a group are collated into a collective decision (Surowiecki, 2005). Similarly, an artist creating a multi-user interface must design a mechanism to input the behaviours of all the participants into the installation.
reddit’s r/place project (2017) (Fig 3 and 4) found an interesting method of aggregating input from a very large group of participants and provides an excellent framework within which to discuss collaboration. The project, which took place online and lasted 72 hours, consisted of a canvas of 1000×1000 pixels. Any reddit user could draw on the canvas and over one million did but each person could only place one pixel every 5 to 20 minutes (the time limit varied throughout the experiment). This meant that any individual would have no chance of drawing anything by themselves, and that people had to collaborate.
Over the course of the 72 hours, territory was fought for and defended. Much of the canvas is dedicated to country flags, logos and sports teams. New communities also sprung up, such as ‘r/ainbowroad’, dedicated to drawing a diagonal rainbow across the canvas, and ‘r/placehearts’, who drew hearts.
I created a survey designed to find out how participants had felt about taking part in r/place (Appendix 3). Despite the fact it has been well over a year since the experiment, I received 176 survey responses, from people who had placed anywhere from 1 to 1000 pixels. Many of the respondents had placed over 100 pixels, which would have taken over 8 hours, showing that engagement in the project was very high. The comments and stories people shared are overwhelmingly positive. People talked extensively about a sense of belonging, saying, “it felt great to be part of something”. r/place seemed to provide a sense of camaraderie. One participant said, “I just liked knowing other people were also invested.” This sense of belonging seems to have been genuinely meaningful and also lasting, with participants saying, “I’m still in contact with many of those I participated with”, “I don’t know if I’ll ever match the feeling of participating in a project like r/place” and “r/placehearts was a very very bright event in a very dark time for me.”
Collaborating towards a common goal seemed to particularly affect many users, who shared insights like, “Everyone worked together to make something we can all be proud of.” The anonymity of the collaboration was also profound to respondents who said, “[I] liked the feeling of being part of something ‘bigger’ and cooperating with people I don’t know and will never know” and “It felt really nice doing team work anonymously”. Collaboration with unseen strangers reminded them of the commonality we have with others across the globe.
The nature of r/place meant that there was also conflict, the canvas was a turf war. One participant said, “It was a lot like a battlefield with factions and countries battling it out and creating truces or even teaming up.” A couple of respondents to my survey said they tried to draw nazi imagery, or that they had wanted to destroy the trans flag on the canvas. However, these efforts were fruitless. A reddit employee reading the comments at the time, said, “A bunch of people are finding swastikas and then telling everyone else where they are, so that people can go get rid of them”’ and ‘the swastika-makers got bored and moved on’ (Newsweek, 2017). Josh Wardle, the reddit employee who came up with the idea said, “What was really amazing was seeing how quickly the community organized and started to self-police the canvas to keep it positive” (Newsweek, 2017).
In the end, largest areas of real estate are dedicated to things like the rainbow road and ‘the final image contained no visible hate symbols, no violent threats, not even much nudity’ (Newsweek, 2017). The aggregation method has a lot to do with this. In r/place, everyone could place pixels at equal intervals. The positive groups won out as they were the most prevalent, where perhaps in other mediums they might be shouted down by a vocal minority. The community and the mechanism ensured this was no platform for hate and the vast majority of respondents to my survey made no mention of the hate groups’ involvement.
A few respondents expressed frustration towards “trolls ruining the art”, referring mostly to a group called ‘the void’, who wanted to cover the whole canvas in black pixels. However, most said things like “it was all friendly banter, no hard feelings” and even “it was nice to have an ‘enemy’ like the void”. To most people the rivalry was all part of the game, adding to the fun. One void contributor said, “I felt a sense of companionship with everyone else working on r/place, even those directly opposing and eliminating my pixels.”
r/place is a strong example of the power of facilitating collaboration in artwork. One survey respondent said, “collective effort creates community”, illuminating another area rich with potential for installation artists.
An old saying goes ‘A stranger is just a friend you haven’t met yet’, but how often do we actually turn strangers into friends, or even engage with them at all? Social connection is important to us, ‘humans are, after all, social beings’ and ‘social isolation has an impact on health comparable to the effect of high blood pressure, lack of exercise, obesity or smoking’ (Kagan, 2009, p5).
Being around other people is not enough to create connection. People are averse to starting conversations with strangers, as a campaign to encourage “Tube chat” proved when it ‘provoke[d] horror among London commuters’ (The Guardian, 2016).
By providing a medium for people to interact, art can enable people to communicate, work together and share something of themselves with each other, offering a valuable opportunity for connection.
The quality and nature of an interface clearly affects the enjoyment of an experience; we’d prefer to travel in first class than in standard, even though both will get us to our destination.
Interface design also affects group experience and can be shaped and refined to best facilitate shared experience, emotions, consciousness, collaboration and connection. In this section I will introduce interactive systems and user experience design as they relate to installation art for groups. Then I will examine a range of examples of interface designs that are suitable for groups, some specific installations and some general interface mechanisms.
Interaction describes a closed loop system where two agents affect each other (Fig 5). In the context of this paper, the two agents would be the installation and the group, as depicted in System A. It’s also possible to create open loop systems like System B and C, where one agent reacts to the other, but the reactions do not have any further effect on the system.
System B describes an installation where the behaviour of a crowd is used as the input, but where the results are not presented live so they have no effect on the crowd. An example of this type of work is the aforementioned Flight Patterns (Koblin, 2006). The imagery generated from flight paths does not have any effect on the flights themselves so the loop is not closed.
System C describes a system where the group can see the installation and react but the installation is not affected by their reaction. An example of this would be a pre programmed light show at a concert.
Most systems discussed in this paper will be of type A, where the interaction is an ongoing interplay.
Stages of Interaction
As described in Rules of Play (Zimmerman & Salen, 2003), any interaction goes through three stages; listening, thinking, speaking. This can be reframed to be more relevant to technology and interactive art by retitling the stages; input, processing, output (Fig 6).
In the installation’s input stage, it takes in information from the participants and the environment. This input is limited to whatever sensors the installation has been equipped with. In the processing stage, the installation considers its response. This would be the running of behaviours the installation has been programmed with, or the response of the materials it is constructed with. In the output stage, the installation gives out information or performs actions which are experienced by the participants. Again, this output is limited to whatever the installation has been equipped with.
The output stage for the installation is simultaneously the input stage for the participants, as the interaction runs its loop. The participants experience the installation’s actions, and choose how to respond. The participants’ perception of the input, consideration of their response, and the actuation of it is multitudes more complex than the installation’s, taking into account historical context, personal memories and the full gamut of human perception and behaviour.
Interactive experience is shaped by the interface between people and the art work. The field of user experience has much to teach us about designing interactions and interfaces. In his book, ‘Emotional Design’, Donald Norman defines three aspects of design (2004). Visceral design is concerned with aesthetics; within the context of this paper, how beautiful an artwork is. Reflective design is about the story of the work, the narrative and context. Behavioural design has to do with the ‘pleasure and effectiveness of use’ (Norman, 2004, p39).
These three play into each other. Aesthetic, visceral design affects ease of use, the behavioural design. In an experiment by Israeli scientist Noam Tractinsky, ATMs with buttons laid out attractively were judged easier to use by members of the public than machines with an unattractive layout (Norman, 2004). Art often seeks to communicate an important narrative, so reflective design is important to consider. However, while a person may love a personally sentimental object even if it is ugly or useless, visitors to an installation are less likely to be moved by even the most powerful story, if the experience is difficult or frustrating to partake in, and the aesthetic is carelessly designed or implemented.
Form should follow function, arising from the usability of a design and not ahead of it. Good behavioural design should ensure that it is clear to participants how an installation is meant to be used and that usage is enjoyable. Use should be encouraged and people should not feel unsure how to interact or nervous to do so (unless there is a particular reflective design reason for creating an user-unfriendly experience). Behavioural design is key to interactive art, with the visceral design seeking to rise out from therein, to communicate the reflective.
Establishing some metrics for discussion
To aid in considering the behavioural design of the inputs, processing and outputs of various interactive artworks and interfaces I have found it useful to define a series of scales on which to evaluate them. This kind of evaluation is often done in the field of user experience, to evaluate user interface against a series of heuristics (Nielsen, 1992). While these scales are sometimes qualitative, here they are descriptive and define the nature of the interaction rather than judging its success directly. When designing an interactive artwork, an artist could consider where on these scales their interface would lie, to aid in thinking about how that is likely to affect the experience. (See Appendix 1 for evaluations of all the referenced projects along these scales.)
Egalitarian – Weighted
When designing an aggregation mechanism for a multi-user system to process input from participants, it is possible to either give each participant exactly identical influence – an egalitarian system, or to endow some participants with more or different influence than others – a weighted system.
Obtuse – Direct
In some interfaces participants can clearly see how their inputs have been processed into the installation’s output, while in others the output may be more obtuse and it is less clear what outcome their actions are having.
Corporeal – Cognitive
Interaction can require the use of participants’ whole bodies and be very corporeal or it can be more about decision making and driven cognitively.
Automatic – Deliberate
Inputs can be collected from a crowd’s automatic behaviours, like their heartbeats or from deliberate conscious input, like choosing to push a button or draw on a screen.
Linked – Parallel
Sometimes an installation simply allows for multiple participants to experience it at the same time, in parallel but not necessarily affecting each other. Others are really geared towards groups, and links everyone’s experience together. In a parallel experience it is likely that the installation would still be effective if only one participant is present, while a linked one really needs multiple participants.
Goal Directed – Open ended
An interactive experience often contains a goal, such as in a game, but it can also be more open ended, with the only goal being enjoyment, play, creation or exploration. Often when presented with a goalless interactive experience which is fun to use and provides a good platform for experimentation, participants will invent their own goals and games.
Interfaces for groups
The majority of human-computer interfaces we use consist of a keyboard and mouse or touchscreen. If these are used for group interaction then careful consideration needs to be given to the design of the system to make it appropriate for multiple users. There are also other less common input and output devices which are well suited for multi-user interactive art.
I will present a selection of examples of ways to provide an interface suited to a group, discuss where they place on the relevant scales from the previous section, and evaluate which of the group experience phenomena they best facilitate.
Distributed input devices
Giving out small input devices to each participant is a common way to facilitate group interaction. This, at its most simple, is facilitated by giving each participant a button or game controller. Game controllers are a very practical way to gather input from a large crowd but controllers with just a few buttons do not intrinsically provide a delightful experience.
However, it is possible to design game controllers which affect enjoyment of the interaction greatly and ‘the latest consoles let players […] become part of the game more than ever before.’ (Cummings 2007) There are controllers that provide a more embodied experience such as Dance Dance Revolution mats (Konami, 1998) which require players to tap buttons with their feet on a floor mat, or games like Guitar Hero (Activision, n.d.) which use simplified versions of instruments like guitars and drums. It is possible to design similar physical interfaces to distribute to large audiences that are designed specifically for a particular art installation.
Distributed input devices – Loren Carpenter’s Paddles (1991)
In Loren Carpenter’s Pong experiments (1991) (Fig 7), a seated audience was split into two teams to play games like Pong. Each person in the audience was given a paddle with one side red and one side green. The Pong paddle’s height is controlled by the colours the audience members hold up – red is down and green is up. Participants have to collaborate to play the games, as their input is aggregated together to control the Pong paddle.
I recreated this experiment, using similar technology to Carpenter’s original (Fig 8). In one of the games I created, players had to fly a rocket through a tunnel and not crash into asteroids (Fig 9). The vertical position of the rocket is directly related to the ratio of red to yellow paddles being held up. If every player holds up red, the rocket will immediately crash into the bottom of the tunnel. To successfully fly the rocket, some participants must hold up red and some yellow. It would be very difficult for them to deliberately calculate a system to achieve this, or to communicate instructions on who should hold up each colour. However, after a few tries, they managed to control the rocket successfully as a group without any central organisation.
When speaking about his experiments, Loren Carpenter said, “There’s an order that emerges that gives them kind of an amoeba-like effect where they surge and they play. I wanted to see if no hierarchy existed at all, what would happen? They formed a kind of a subconscious consensus” (Curtis, 2011). The existence of this subconscious consensus suggests that a group of people can in fact have its own mind and consciousness.
When playing Pong (Carpenter, 1991) or my rocket game (Goodchild, 2018c), participants have a clear goal. This shared goal is vital to the creation of the subconscious consensus as it aligns the participants with one another.
The paddle interaction is similar to a simple gamepad in that each audience member makes simple binary choices, but the interface is more corporeal. It is well suited to a seated audience of all ages and most physical abilities, it adds a layer of physicality and fun that traditional game controllers do not have. Additionally, using a game controller can be very insular, providing a parallel experience, whereas the paddles place the interaction visually at the group level, enhancing the group involvement.
Distributed devices can create a feeling of direct control in the output or a more obtuse one.
The size of the group affects how much control participants feel like they have. In my own recreation of the paddle interaction, when I had a small group of around 6 players, people reported that they very clearly perceived the effects of changing their own paddle. In a larger group of around 25 participants, it was harder for people to see the direct effect of their choices. The individual’s perception of group consciousness is likely to be heightened when they can see that the crowd overall is in control despite not feeling their own actions have an effect.
Distributed input devices – touchscreens
Most modern audiences already have a touchscreen in their pockets, meaning artists can let visitors interact with an installation via a downloadable app. Most phones also contain a variety of devices such as accelerometers and proximity sensors which can be used to create rich interactions.
Thus far, most utilisation of this potential seems to be with augmented reality apps such as MoMAR, which ‘uses Augmented Reality to overlay art onto existing artwork and frames housed in museums and gallery spaces around the world’ (MoMAR, 2018) (Fig 10). This does not create a convincing closed loop interaction (Fig 5) as participants see an augmented reality artwork on their phone but they are not able to affect it in any way, aside from moving the device to view different perspectives.
Universal Everything’s 1000 Hands (2013-14) (Fig 11 & 12) made more use of the potential of personal device interaction. Using a free app, visitors could create simple line drawings which were then turned ‘into dancing, poetic musical forms’ (Universal Everything, 2013-2014). There was lots to explore within the app experience as ‘drawing specific shapes reveals hidden forms, behaviours and appearances’ (Universal Everything, 2013-2014). The animated doodles could then be transferred onto large curved screens, where they could move around the space and interact with each other.
When designing a distributed input system it is important to consider whether the audiences’ experience will be focused on their own device. MoMAR (MoMAR, 2018) can be used by many people at once but their experiences are parallel (as opposed to being linked). While it is a successful piece in its own way, there is no need for interaction between participants and it does not particularly encourage a group experience. 1000 Hands (Universal Everything, 2013-14) does draw participants away from their own devices when they contribute their drawings to a larger whole, but much of the experience would likely still be a solitary interaction between the individual and the app.
There is certainly potential for app based interactions which go further towards creating a group experience.
Distributed input devices – wearables
Another distinct type of distributed input device is wearables. Here the input often becomes more automatic instead of deliberate, as the wearable could measure the users’ natural arm movements, their heartbeat or breathing. Wearables create a corporeal experience rather than a cognitive one. These features could show how in sync participants’ bodies are, or what patterns can emerge from their bodily behaviours or processes, creating a connection between them.
Collective Motion Lab used wearables to highlight the synchronicity between festival goers and the music they were dancing to, in Psiloscope (2016). Participants wore wristbands containing accelerometers (Fig 13) which broadcast information about each dancer’s movements. Data was collected live from multiple dancers and used to create visuals on a large 3D projection screen (Fig 14), with each participant controlling a separate part of the imagery. Collective Motion Lab hypothesize that rhythm in music ‘increases the coherence between individuals’ conscious experience’ and that, ‘if the motion of each individual could be captured, enhanced and visualized’ then this could be used to affect group experience.
This work is strongly corporeal, exploring how ‘the kinesthetic experience of one’s own body’ can be synchronised, both with the music and with the movements of others around (Collective Motion Lab, 2016). By visualising this synchronicity at a large scale, it is made more available to everyone present and the project draws everyone’s experience into a linked one.
In Symbiosis (Zhigalina, 2018) (Fig 15) participants wear a belt that contains a tension sensor to monitor their breathing as they sit inside a small dome. Each participant’s breathing pattern is then translated onto LED strips situated opposite them. When all participants inside the dome breathe in synchronisation, additional lighting effects take place. This, however, is not intuitive, and the artist has to instruct people to attempt the synchronisation.
Visualising the breath externalises an internal process, creating something available to the whole group from something which is usually hidden, a clever way to turn a private experience into a group one. Breathing can be deliberate or automatic, as it is possible to control one’s breath or ignore it. Participants are encouraged to control their breathing with the goal of synchronising the group. This is a collaboration, requiring negotiation and resulting in ‘swing’ (Halberstam cited Surowiecki, 2005, p176) which can create a meaningful experience.
Distributed output devices – wearables
Wearables can also be used as an output for the installation; an input for the participants. In Red Follows Yellow Follows Blue Follows Red (Studio Moniker, n.d.) (Fig 16 & 17) participants wear coloured capes and a set of headphones, which gives them instructions. ‘For example, participants with a red cape are asked to “follow yellow but avoid blue”, while participants with a blue cape are asked to “follow red but avoid yellow”’ (Studio Moniker, n.d.).
This system is particularly interesting as the audio instructions given to the participants are pre-recorded (rather than generated in reaction to the participants’ movements). This makes the interaction between the audio and the participants an open loop. However, the group interacts with itself in a closed loop, each participants’ choices affected not only by the audio but by the position and actions of other participants. Furthermore, there is also an audience who can view the installation later but not affect it, creating a second open loop (Fig 18).
The participants in Red Follows Yellow Follows Blue Follows Red (Studio Moniker, n.d.) are being asked to act as if they are part of a colony, operating under simple rules. Every member of each of the colour coded groups is given the same instructions but their actions are not identical. While most of the participants do as they are told, often there are a few who are slower than the rest, go in the wrong direction or interpret the instruction differently. Occasionally a participant seems to completely ignore the instruction, reminding us that these are humans, not robots and there is a tension between ‘the desire to belong and the need for individuality’ (Studio Moniker, n.d.) an interesting take on group experience.
Braincoat (Diller Scofidio + Renfro, 2002a) (Fig 19), a prospective project which was not realised, also included wearables as an output device. The proposition was that visitors to the Blur Building (Diller Scofidio + Renfro, 2002b) (Fig 20) would first fill out a short survey ‘conceived with writer Douglas Cooper’ containing enigmatic questions like ‘sinner or saint’ and ‘most or least’ (Diller Scofidio + Renfro, 2002a) before donning the smart raincoats and entering the fog of the Blur Building. The coats would then compare the wearer’s answers to those of others and a chest panel in the coat would glow red or blue depending on whether there is an affinity or antipathy towards those nearby. ‘A small vibrating pad is located in the rear pockets. When two perfectly matched visitors encounter one another in the fog, a vibration excites the buttocks.’
Here the wearable is functioning as a communication device between the visitors. Visibility would be low inside the fog, so the glow of the raincoats would elicit a connection between people when they would otherwise be isolated from each other. The unusual nature of the survey provides an interesting angle. When making new friends, most people will ask about each other’s job or hobbies, but perhaps a series of offbeat questions could have found a way to connect people in a different way.
Here the wearable is functioning as a communication device between the visitors. Visibility would be low inside the fog, so the glow of the raincoats would elicit a connection between people when they would otherwise be isolated from each other. The unusual nature of the survey provides an interesting angle. When making new friends, most people will ask about each other’s job or hobbies, but perhaps a series of offbeat questions could have found a way to connect people in a different way.
Ivan Cash hands out surveys and creative worksheets to his fellow travellers in The Passenger Project (no date) (Fig 21), turning them into ‘creative collaborators’ (Cash, 2018). Struck by how lonely flying alone can be, despite the fact that you are surrounded by people, Cash thought, ‘there’s got to be a way of uniting everyone who’s aboard this miracle we’re experiencing’ (Cash, 2018).
Through the simple medium of paper, these surveys facilitate connection between strangers, something we rarely have an opportunity for. Anyone looking at the results, either on the plane as it is being filled out, or browsing through the collection on Cash’s website can explore the ways in which we humans are the same, or different. The website also contains a PDF of blank worksheets, so that more people can take part by printing their own set to hand out.
Cash points out that some people decline to participate and, for him, that’s okay because ‘any sort of attempt for connection inherently involves risk [of rejection]’ (2018). This is true but the survey provides a solid platform from which to try and make a connection, one which is surely less daunting than trying to start a conversation with a stranger apropos of nothing. It certainly draws a better reception than the aforementioned “Tube Chat” campaign (The Guardian, 2016).
Rather than distributing objects throughout a crowd, it is possible to provide one object that multiple people can interact with.
ADA (Smigla-Bobinski, 2010) (Fig 22) is a large ball inflated with helium and covered with graphite markers. The ball moves around a large room, leaving marks on the white walls, floor and ceiling. Visitors can push the ball around to influence the marks. This is an example of an installation that has the potential to provide a shared or parallel experience. It could certainly be enjoyed by a lone visitor or visitors could essentially ignore each other, but a group could also play with the ball together. As found by Boothby, Clark & Bargh (2014), the experience is likely to be intensified when shared.
There is more scope here to design objects which do more to encourage a shared and linked interaction.
Collaboratively built work
In Open Burble (2006) (Fig 23 and 24), Usman Haque provides a way for people to collaborate on a creative project. First, participants arrange small hexagonal pieces, composing a layout (Fig 23). Then, in a public outdoor space, they assemble 140 prefabricated modular units of the actual structure, each of which is 2 meters wide and is ‘supported by 7 extra-large helium balloons which contain sensors, LEDs and microcontrollers’ (Haque, 2006). Participants are then responsible for holding on ‘using handles with which they may position the Burble as they like’ (Haque, 2006). Pressing on the handles sends waves of colour through the 980 balloons.
Vitally, the project does not just ask participants to create an artwork. It provides a solid framework within which they can collaborate to design the piece. Asking a group of strangers to design and build a sculpture from scratch would likely be a disaster, unless the process was well managed and directed. Instead people are provided the tools they need to work with (which had been pre-designed and built by the artist) and they are guided through the steps to put them together. Yet, they still feel an ownership over the final piece, and a sense of achievement and connection to their fellow participants. ‘Their individual contributions become an integral part of a spectacular, ephemeral experience many times their size that they have come together to produce’ (Haque, 2006).
The internet is a fitting medium for group experiences, and has the potential to offer an experience to a huge number of people. Do Not Touch (Studio Moniker, 2013) (Fig 25) is a music video in which users’ cursor movements are recorded as they interact with video footage and instructions on screen. The recorded movements are then played back on top of the footage for future visitors to interact alongside a crowd of historic actions.
Time forms an interesting part of this piece; participants are collaborating alongside others but, in fact, their collaborators are from the past. Despite the time difference, as each participant’s cursor swims alongside the others, a small representation of their presence is transported from their isolated physical location and into a shared digital space where they can engage with the video and each other, providing a place to connect, even if only briefly.
Skeleton tracking can be implemented with the use of a Kinect (Xbox, n.d.) or through video analysis software like OpenPose (CMU-Perceptual-Computing-Lab, 2018) (Fig 26). The Kinect v2 can only track two skeletons at a time but it does this with excellent definition, tracking 25 skeleton points in three dimensions and in real time at up to 30fps (Ahmed, Paul & Gavrilova, 2015). OpenPose can track many more skeletons but with only 15 points and the frame rate is limited to around 12fps, which is only achievable with a very high end graphics card. (CMU-Perceptual-Computing-Lab, 2018)
Skeleton Tracking – Kinect
I made use of Kinect skeleton tracking in my own work to explore collaborative control, allowing two participants to interact with on screen imagery at the same time (Goodchild, 2018b). In one example, Shared weird body (Goodchild, 2018b) (Fig 27), there are three figures visible on screen. One figure in red, controlled by the left hand participant; another figure in blue, controlled by the right hand participant; and a third figure in yellow, controlled collaboratively by both participants. The yellow figure is drawn by averaging out the readings for each participant. In another example, Connected body (Goodchild, 2018b) (Fig 28), each participant controls selected points of one shape. In a third example, Pendulum (Goodchild, 2018b) (Fig 29), each participant controls one of the arms of a double pendulum.
The yellow figure in the middle during Shared Weird Body (Goodchild, 2018b) is controlled by both participants. Is that figure’s experience situated only partly in each of them, or also between them as a distinct shared mind? The question is open.
These examples provide participants with an open-ended (rather than goal directed) system, but participants initiated games and goals of their own. They pretended to fight over the shared middle figure in a tug of war, and they collaborated to turn the shared figures into interesting forms.
Skeleton Tracking – OpenPose
AI DJ Project (Quosmo, n.d.) (Fig 30) is an artificially intelligent DJ which selects tracks, beat matches and mixes them. Going to a gig with a normal (human) DJ is a primary example of a group experience and ‘a good DJ is always looking at the crowd, seeing what they like, seeing whether it’s working’ (Norman Cook a.k.a Fatboy Slim, cited Quosmo, n.d.).
In AI DJ Project (Quosmo, n.d.), this process of crowd monitoring is automated by tracking the audience’s movement with OpenPose (CMU-Perceptual-Computing-Lab, 2018), then using the data to judge how well they are enjoying the music. If they are moving over a certain threshold, similar tracks to the current one are selected. If they are standing still then randomness is introduced to the selection process ‘so that the system might be able to explore new musical realm and (hopefully) stimulate the seemingly bored audience’ (Quosmo, n.d.).
This system is an example of a very obtuse (as opposed to direct) level of control for the audience. It is unclear whether they were told that their movement would influence the track choices but, even if they were aware, it is unlikely that they would be able to closely link the input of their semi-automatic dancing movements to the output of the songs selected. An obtuse level of control is likely to create a very different group experience to a direct one. If the audience was able to vote more directly on the current tracks, they may feel more involved and therefore more cohesively connected to the experience and therefore each other. There is room for exploration here.
The design for processing output to the system is flawed, as the creators admit; ‘the randomness brought more confusion to the audience, and it led to more randomness’ (Quosmo, n.d.). The system may be able to diagnose when the audience is bored, but making the selections more random did not solve this problem.
The system is judging the emotional atmosphere. Reacting to these judgements more effectively would then create a more positive emotional atmosphere in the crowd. As each member of the audience is affected by the emotional atmosphere of the whole crowd, improving and heightening that atmosphere could create a spiraling effect leading to a powerful experience reminiscent of Slaby’s example of ‘being drawn into the euphoria of an exuberant party’ (2014, p7).
While the Kinect only allows tracking of up to two skeletons – with 26 joints, it is also possible to track up to 6 people as blobs. I used this technology to create an interface to play T-Rex Runner (Google 2014), a game where a dinosaur must jump over cacti. Usually the dinosaur jumps when the player hits the space bar but, in my version, the dinosaur jumps when over half of the people playing jump into the air at the same time (Goodchild 2018c) (Fig 31).
If only three or fewer of the six participants jump, or if the jump is not synchronised, the dinosaur does not jump and will crash into the approaching cactus. This corporeal interaction proved to be very tiring and highly frustrating, but people were certainly engaged in the experience, breaking out in cheers when they beat their previous record (Goodchild, 2018c). These participants experience the same kind of ‘swing’ (Halberstam cited Surowiecki, 2005, p176) as felt by rowers in a boat.
Projection can be implemented at large scales, making it an excellent medium for output for groups. teamLab’s exemplary work makes extensive use of projection, to great effect. In Graffiti Nature – Living in the Ruins of a Bathhouse (2017) (Fig 33), participants colour in various creatures on paper sheets (Fig 32) which are then scanned in and added to the projections. This mechanism is similar to that of 1000 Hands (Universal Everything, 2013-2014) but teamLab takes the output further, completely filling the space with projections of the contributed creatures and immersing participants in the ecosystem they create.
This immersion surely heightens the experience. It is one thing to stand with another person, looking at an imaginary world on a large screen but quite another to stand beside them inside that world. While virtual reality headsets more completely submerge users in the virtual world, this submersion removes the opportunity for face to face human contact. Projection offers a way to create an immersive virtual world which multiple people can bodily inhabit together.
Graffiti Nature – Living in the Ruins of a Bathhouse (teamLab, 2017) also goes further to encourage interaction with the ecosystem. The animated forms people create in 1000 Hands (Universal Everything, 2013-2014) are given behaviours within the app but, once they are in the curved screens, they do not interact with the participants. Conversely in teamLab’s project, ‘if you step on Crocodiles too much they will die. If you stand still flowers will blossom around you. If you walk around, the flowers will scatter.’ (2017)
When participants interact with ‘the world that everyone has created’ (teamLab 2017), hunting for their creatures and playing with the behaviours of the ecosystem, this opens the doors for group interaction. That being said, there is nothing in the design that directly requires interaction between participants, such as a collaboration, meaning there is ample opportunity for artists to explore using projected worlds to facilitate group experience further.
Interactive art has only begun to fulfill its potential to facilitate meaningful group experience. Throughout this paper there are open questions, examples where the outcome is not completely successful and room for further exploration. Many of the technologies which are making this exploration possible have only existed for a short time and it is likely that multi-user interactive art will develop further in the coming years.
By establishing this series of scales with which to define multi-user interfaces in the context of artwork, and to consider what kind of interaction they offer, there is a framework to aid in the design and development of further work. The list of scales is certainly not exhaustive and could be expanded for further benefit. For example it would be worth considering: whether an interface is suitable for a small group or a large one; whether an installation presents a narrative or not; whether an interface is intuitive, has a learning curve or requires instruction.
One of my scales dips into being qualitative, that of Linked – Parallel experience. It is my opinion that the most meaningful group experiences are linked ones. Interesting linked experiences are created by finding novel ways to aggregate inputs or process and present outputs, and by encouraging participants to interact with each other as well as the artwork.
Each of the other scales describes an area for exploration of ways to facilitate group experience and to reach for linked experience. For example, the physicality of the corporeal experience of my Collaborative Control Kinect experiments (Goodchild, 2018b) link participants in a very different way to the cognitive experience of Collaborative gameplay: Recreating Loren Carpenter’s experiments (Goodchild, 2018a).
This exploration should yield worthwhile results. As Meow Wolf have found, providing accessible interactive art suitable for groups led to them having ‘families coming in that had never felt comfortable setting foot in an art gallery before and they would leave all blissed out’ (Kadlubek, 2015). This certainly sounds like a meaningful experience.
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