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Predictability vs. Creativity: An investigation of auto-pedagogical collective systems promoting individuals’ non-trivial responses

Predictability vs. Creativity: An investigation of auto-pedagogical collective systems promoting individuals’ non-trivial responses

The modern era is characterized by technological revolution and environmental changes. Today’s environments are shifting faster than ever in the way they operate making people’s ability to be adaptable essential. However, this rapid change found them in societies and built environments that were structured to be easily controllable, thus standardized and predictable. Architectural spaces designed according to normalized (male) or ideal bodies set by Ernst Neufert (1970) and Le Corbusier (1950 and 1955) are representative examples of this logic. Moreover, national education systems that were developed according to the demands of the Industrial Revolution (Robinson, 2011, p.8), by their majority have only slightly sifted their structure, continuing to have as their main task the distribution of information in order to be memorized.

As Heinz von Foerster (2003a, p.208) notes humans always had the tendency to ‘trivialize’ their environment, meaning to make it predictable in order to be able to control it. However, trivialization has been applied not only by humans to their environments, but also vice versa.  People live their lives in a habitual way, in which determined principles apply in specific circumstances. Frequently, any unpredictable output is considered false or unpleasant and most of the times any diversion has to be restored (Von Foerster, 2003a, p.208).

However, predictability or comfort are states which cannot stimulate negotiation, adaptation and evolution. In Bruno Munari’s photo-essay Ricerca della comodità in una poltrona scomoda (Searching comfort in an uncomfortable chair) (Munari, 2012) the difference between comfort-discomfort or predictability-unpredictability becomes apparent showing the human body negotiating with an environment that does not serve the presupposed function.

Figure 1. Uno torna a casa stanco per aver lavorato tutto il giorno e trova una poltrona scomoda  (One comes home tired from working all day and finds an uncomfortable chair), page detail  Published in Domus 202 / October 1944 (Munari, 1944).


The above ideas guided my interests on how an unpredictable environment could work as an auto-pedagogical tool stimulating people’s non-trivial responses and triggered the formation of the following research questions: (1) What is the necessary level of legibility of an interactive system that would make people willing to enter an unknown-unpredictable environment? (2) How can this environment remain non-trivial for its participants even when an adjustment time has passed? (3) How could participants learn to not only constantly adapt into the new environment, but also stimulate its non-triviality by their own non-trivial actions?

The analysis of a series of projects (referred to as Hacks) developed by my collaborators (Alexandra Niaka and Isabella Ong) and me, was used by the research to address the above issues. The observations of the projects were examined in relation to a series of theories, concepts and other examples of continuously evolving systems. Finally, our thesis project Ichni, which draws on this research is described. This project aims to continue and stimulate this investigation, test the new assumptions and show further leaks and observations related to the research questions.


2.0 Von Foerster’s Trivial Machines

People always had the tendency to try to understand or simplify their environment in order to be able to control it. Heinz von Foerster (2003a, pp.207-10) uses the term ‘trivialization’ — the conversion of complexity into a ‘trivial machine’ – to describe this process. ‘Machine’ is not referring to a physical structure but to the ‘well-defined functional properties of an abstract entity’ (Von Foerster, 2003a, p.208). A trivial machine is organized as a simple algorithm connecting inputs and outputs in a fixed way. In contrast, the relationship between inputs and outputs of a non-trivial machine is fluctuated, related to its previous outputs (Von Foerster, 2003a, p.208).

2.1 Triviality

As already mentioned ‘trivial’ refers to a standard relation between inputs and outputs. So, a specific input always causes the exact same response regardless of the time passed or the previous stimuli (Von Foerster, 2003a, p.208).

Almost all the devices in everyday life are designed to be trivial. They have a specific set of functions described in manuals for the users (humans) to be able to know exactly what the outputs will be. As Von Foerster (2003a, p.208) mentions whenever a device (he uses the example of turning the starter key to a car) stops giving the predictable outcome is considered broken and the deviation from its supposed function has to be restored.

People also try to convert their non-trivial environments into trivial machines. As an example, Von Foerster mentions ‘the discovery of agriculture’, which ‘is the discovery that some aspects of Nature can be trivialized: If I till today, I shall have bread tomorrow’ (Von Foerster, 2003a, p.208). Consequently, trivialization can take place in two ways. The first way is by transforming a non-fixed input-output relationship into a fixed one (e.g., training a dog). The second way is by understanding a behaviour when discovering the algorithm that connects inputs and outputs (Von Foerster, 2003a, p.202) (e.g., the case of agriculture).

However, people, intentionally or not, are applying trivialization to themselves too. Education systems, frequently, become examples of human trivialization. In general, school trains children in a specific set of questions with predefined answers, while learning is based on memorization. So, tests become the ‘devices to establish a measure of trivialization’ (Von Foerster, 2003a, p.209).

Furthermore, reduction, which is used to help people understand and control their environment, has in many cases become a trap (Lefebvre, 1991, pp.105-7). Henri Lefebvre (1991, p.105) refers to reduction as a scientific method ‘designed to deal with the complexity and chaos of brute observations’. The effect of reduction can be found in the design rules of the architectural space according to normalized (male) or ideal bodies set by Ernst Neufert (1970) and Le Corbusier (1950 and 1955). In many architectural schools, Neufert’s book Architects’ Data (1970) is used constituting the basis of architectural design. However, by constructing their environment according to rules based on reduction, people end up eliminating the possibilities of their own interactions with it. Their environment in relation to the process of socialization through which people have been raised and trained to behave in specific, acceptable ways, trivializes them.

2.2 Non-triviality

According to Von Foerster ‘in a non-trivial machine […] the output is determined by the input and its internal state’ (2003b, p.196). Every input alters the internal state of a non-trivial machine through time. So, by changing and evolving the way in which the machine operates, it ‘becomes a different trivial machine’ (Von Foerster, 2003c, p.142) after every input. This shift between states makes this type of behaviour unpredictable.  In human-environment interaction, non-triviality could be related to human creativity. Creativity here refers to the capacity of people to adapt to new situations as they perceive the stimuli, alter their internal state and respond accordingly.

However, as discussed above people have creativity taught out of them through education and society. As Sir Ken Robinson (2011, p.8) notes, national education systems arose out of the demands of the Industrial Revolution and were designed according to its interests and structure. In contrast, today’s environments are shifting faster than ever due to technological revolution and environmental changes. Therefore, people’s ability to be adaptable becomes essential.

So, a new need related to reversing the trivialization processes is arising. Von Foerster (2003a, p.209) relates detrivialization to teaching people to ask and answer unpredictable questions. In this way, people are perceived as individuals free to evolve their internal state, follow their impulses and act on their desired future, by gaining knowledge from past experiences but without being restrained by the past rules. This process of detrivialization is the one that the research aims to investigate through the following chapters.


3.0 Space-Hacking Projects

As has already been mentioned, people have chosen to design trivial environments in order to be able to control them. However, when the predefined stabilities are sifted people need to operate without having absolute control over their world. This is when tactics arise. The term ‘tactics’ refers to the methods that people use to operate and adapt to new situations (De Certeau, 1984). Michel de Certeau (1984, p.xix) describes them as methods of the weak to ‘turn to their own ends forces alien to them’. When someone has not absolute control over their environment, they need to be in constant alertness, ready to seize the opportunities (De Certeau, 1984, p.xix). Therefore, tactics are not independent of context. However, they do have their own time, which is when different elements of the environment can be combined and used towards goals and needs (De Certeau, 1984, p.xix).

In this case, the environment has its own ‘strategy’ (De Certeau, 1984, p.xix). It sets the rules and the constraints. As De Certeau describes it, the environment controls and promotes a scenario or a score and determines the possible relationships. The rules become the basis that supports the development of tactics. It could be ‘the equivalent of the rules of meter and rhyme for poets of earlier times: a body of constraints stimulating new discoveries’ (De Certeau, 1984, p.xxii).

The relationship between people’s tactics and the strategy of the environment becomes apparent in collective interactivities formed by children games like Dodgeball and Hide and Seek, and a rehearsal process like Stanislavski’s Method of Physical Actions (specifically the use of a sequence of Tasks [1]) (Benedetti, 1998). In both cases, the strategy of the system is based on people’s conflicting or interrelating goals in relation to the surrounding space or the script. In collective children games, there are two objectives, with the one opposite of the other (e.g., in Hide and Seek); or there are objectives that trigger competitive behaviours (e.g., a running competition), while Stanislavski introduced the use of sequences of Tasks that actors needed to accomplish in the given situations driving their improvisation and performance (Benedetti, 1998). In both cases, the tasks lead to immediate actions and are related to the other players.

In this way, each participant’s actions cause the sifting of the existing circumstances, triggering the others to adapt and evolve their performance. The interconnection of participants’ tactics assures the constant detrivialization of the system.

Triggered by the above ideas my collaborators (A. Niaka and I. Ong) and I developed a number of Hacks, designed to facilitate collective interactivity – aiming to question the trivial environments and people’s trivial responses in their everyday life. Well-established activities and their related environments were chosen. The criterion for this selection was the occurrence of standardized, habitual human behaviours within these spaces, which subsequently were hacked to disrupt the characteristics that made these systems trivial.

The Hacks investigated (1) people’s ability and willingness to start operating and develop tactics in new environments, (2) the level of their non-trivial responses and evolving tactics and (3) the level on which the participants by themselves stimulated the unpredictability and evolution of these systems.

The projects that will be examined in the context of this essay are (1) Body-, (2) Stairs-, (3) Auditorium- and (4) Bench-Hack (2,3 and 4 also referred to as Space-Hacks). They will be elaborated in chronological order since the methodology of designing these Hacks was developed as an evolutionary process where the observations of each project influenced the design of the next ones.

3.1 Reconfiguring the body [Body-Hack]

The first project was developed before the space-hacking methodology was formed. However, it led to interesting conclusions related to the human adaptability into new complicities. The participants’ bodies were linked in different ways with the use of ropes (Figure 2) and they were asked to accomplish simple tasks (Isabella Ong, 2018a). So, people’s movement could be confronted with mechanical limitations and new potentials.

Figure 2. Reconfiguring the body, Diagram of the different complicities (Chrapana, Niaka and Ong, February 2018)


Starting with individuals (Figure 2a and 2b), first, each participant was asked to explore the ways they can move, with the constraints and potentials of their movements. Almost no one could respond successfully to this general task immediately. The participants tried to find what could be a right response for this by asking for more explanations, but they did not try to move without them. However, subsequently, a more specific simple task (like, which is the most comfortable position or way of walking?) helped them explore their possibilities and try new movements. In the end, each participant’s most comfortable movement was different. Therefore, it could be argued that when a task becomes more specific participants may feel that part of the responsibility of their actions is transferred to the task itself. In this way, they are free to explore without having the fear of being judged for their choices (in the first case the task was related to creating a movement, while in the second with finding or discovering a movement).

Another observation was related to the perceived difficulty of the given tasks. The rope interconnections were designed in order for the tasks to be achievable for all the participants. However, several times the participants refused to even to try to perform a task because they thought that the constraints of the ropes would restrict them. In these cases, my collaborators and I were helping them by giving instructions or by making the task simpler in the beginning and then increase the difficulty through time. Interestingly, when people finally achieved the difficult goal, they realized the extents of their abilities. Consequently, this understanding triggered them to ask for more difficult goals, wanting to find the limits of their possible movements.

Interestingly, when the interconnections were created between two participants (Figure 2c and 2d), differences between individual’s and pair’s interaction was observed regarding their willingness to try and achieve a goal, the development of their tactics and the complexity of the created systems.

In the case of pairs, participants were asked to collaborate for the achievement of a common goal. It was observed that they were more willing to start performing in their new environment than individuals. This can be justified in two ways. First, sharing the responsibility for the performance and the developed tactics with another one made each participant less afraid of failure and more willing to try. Second, especially when the pairs were consisting of one beginner and one master of the system (one of my collaborators), the experienced one could help the other feel more comfortable and capable by giving instructions and demonstrating the possible movements.

Moreover, although a system of pairs seemed safer and more accessible, it became more complex and evolving. While the participants were collaborating, the behavioural proposal of the one was affecting the other (because of the restrains of the ropes). So, the other needed to adapt anew, change his/her movement or make a new proposal in order for them to achieve their common goal.

In conclusion, the Body-Hack showed a number of important parameters that can affect the willingness of the participants to enter an unknown environment, explore it and evolve their tactics. First, the goals were giving guidance and meaning to participants’ exploration and undertook part of the responsibility for their behaviour and choices. However, it was important for the task to seem achievable and the system to be well explained for the participants to be willing to try. Therefore, the difficult tasks were divided into smaller steps with progressively increasing difficulty. After the development of the following Space-Hacks, it became apparent that the above method was the key to triggering participants’ exploration. It made the new environment seem safe yet continuously challenging while achieving a task triggered participants to ask for more difficult ones.

Finally, the system of pairs seemed safer, yet more challenging and complex. When participants were collaborating, they were sharing their knowledge and skills and the responsibility for their performance. Moreover, each participant’s action was affecting the other one and as a result, their negotiation and evolution of their tactics were constantly stimulated.

The observations of this first project stimulated the development of the following Space-Hacks, where the above assumptions were tested, and the related ideas were clarified and evolved.

3.2 Mind your step [Stairs-Hack]

The Stairs-Hack (Mind your step) and Auditorium-Hack (Don’t be a couch potato) were developed together introducing the space-hacking methodology.

The repetitive rhythm of climbing the stairs made this architectural typology an ideal choice for the Space-Hacks. Moreover, since staircases are considered as transition spaces, their function is directly related to a specific task (climb up or down in order to go to a specific space). This could assure the existence of a goal that could drive participants’ tactics in the hacked space.

The above parameters led to the design of four moving platforms, as time-based obstacles installed on a staircase. They were constructed from cardboard and they were moving relatively slowly in order to not be a serious hazard. The colors, shape and material of the platforms, made them look familiar, drawing from toy design.

Figure 3. Mind your step, Photographs of the moving platforms(Chrapana, Niaka and Ong, April 2018)


Although, as collaborators, we were developing a non-trivial system, it was important the participants to be able to interact with the system without the need for additional explanations and help. We were aiming to see what could happen if the participants were able to master the system from the beginning. Was the trivialization of the system going to be followed by participants’ reduction of interest or the participants were going to develop tactics trying to make the system more complex and challenging? Moreover, the system could let both individual and collective interaction happen, and the project could show possible differences between these two types of interaction.

Figure 4. Mind your step, Chronophotography of the interactions (Chrapana, Niaka and Ong, April 2018)


As observed (Isabella Ong, 2018b), although in the beginning people were careful, walking slowly, they were a lot more willing to participate than in the previous project. The clear rules and tasks and the design, colour and slow motion of the platforms made this project seem very accessible. Furthermore, interestingly, since the participants mastered the system, very soon they started trying to evolve it and make it more challenging. They started walking faster, even running up and down. Participants also collaborated to make the system more complex. Although in the beginning, only one person was using the stairs each time, the number of people that were climbing up and down at the same time increased through time. However, the system did not provide many possibilities for exploration or greater levels of complexity. As a result, it was very soon trivialized, and the participants lost their interest and stopped interacting.

3.3 Don’t be a couch potato [Auditorium-Hack]

This project was developed to disturb the passive relationship between audience and spectacle. The auditorium seats became a remote-control tool with which the participants could edit a movie playing on a screen on the stage. The movie was distorted being processed by a series of filters (e.g., coloured filters, spinning the frames, speeding up / slowing down the movie). The audience’s goal was to find and remove these filters . Therefore, the participants needed to collaborate and use their bodies to connect and activate the buttons that were on the floor.

Figure 5. Don’t be a couch potato (Chrapana, Niaka and Ong, April 2018)


This project was aiming to create a more complex collaborative system than the Stairs-Hack. However, it was again built around a clear and strong goal. The observations were focused on participants’ collaboration in relation to the legibility of the system. Could participants build a basic understanding of the system’s rules by sharing knowledge with the others or a collective interactivity system would be too complicated for someone to easily understand the basic rules and start interacting? How fast could the system be trivialized, or the participants lose their interest?

The complexity of a collective system, the clear goal, the description of the system of buttons as a huge remote control and its familiarity with the well-known game Twister, made the interactions fun and engaging (Isabella Ong, 2018c). Moreover, seeing participants playing triggered many people to come and want to take part in the system. People were not afraid of trying different tactics or using their body in unusual ways. When they were feeling that they understood the basic function of the system, they were trying to find new ways to activate buttons and interact. Interestingly, there were participants who chose to reverse their task and tried to increase the distortion of the movie in order to increase the difficulty of the others’ goal and stimulate this game to last longer.

However, although just observing the other participants interacting was enough, for the beginners could follow other participants’ lead, the simultaneous actions of many participants made it more difficult for someone, who has not mastered the system to detect the impact of his/her own actions in the screened movie. Therefore, signs indicating the function of each button were placed next to them to help the participants distinguish their impact on the movie. However, this change made the system more predictable, since the participants knew what to expect from their actions. Also, if the functions of the buttons were fixed, as well as the distortions of the movie, when the goal of making the movie watchable was achieved the driving force for the interaction ceased to exist.

3.4 Transformable bench [Bench-Hack]

For the last hack, the posture of people sitting and the passiveness of this activity were selected and two hacking prototypes were designed for a concrete bench.

Although the importance of the existence of participants’ goals became apparent in the previous projects, the Auditorium-Hack showed that a system being built around a specific goal cannot evolve further after the goal is achieved. However, participants were able to set tasks for themselves in order for the interaction to last longer. So, as collaborators, we decided to let participants create their own goals and evolve their performance as they gain greater knowledge of the system through time. However, people could be triggered to start interacting while seeking comfort, since the bench was disturbing their normal sitting activity.

The first prototype was a transformable wooden overlay installed on the bench. It consisted of a number of wooden contours with a length longer than the width of the bench. So, these contours could be reformed, without ever being straight. Most of the people were not comfortable in exploring the possibilities of the bench. However, even the participants who gave goals to themselves tended to create configurations they already knew and to take usual everyday poses.

Figure 6. Transformable Bench – 1st prototype, A configuration created by the participants(Chrapana, Niaka and Ong, May 2018)


For the second prototype, the design of the bench drew from playground designs, and was adjusted in order for each of the contours to function as a seesaw. In this way, the hack and its function could become more familiar and playful. Moreover, the movement of each contour could create musical tones. An infinite number of different combinations of notes could be generated creating from the simplest to a very complex sound. This additional element was aiming to trigger people to explore the potentials of this interface.

Figure 7. Transformable Bench — 2nd prototype, Photography of the interaction(Chrapana, Niaka and Ong, June 2018)


In the previous projects, the use of familiarity had helped participants to feel comfortable and understand the necessary rules of the systems. However, in the second Bench-Hack participants were restrained by existing knowledge connected to the use of a seesaw. Moreover, the people who tried to use and explore the generation of sound were mostly people whose knowledge and interests were related to music.

This project showed that creating an interface with an infinite number of potentials is not enough. Although the choice of music notes as the sound output was aiming to make the system easily understood by the participants, on reflection maybe it would be easier for them to interact with the sound parameter if more complete sounds, like melodies, were used. If the participants could recognize, like or dislike the sounds, this could trigger them to act on them. For example, in the Auditorium-Hack participants did not have to create images or the movie, but they could transform it by applying or turning of filters. This helped them participate even without having a specific interest or knowledge on movie making. Also, as Body-Hack showed participants are less afraid and more willing to develop tactics to discover than to create something from the beginning. 

3.5 Research impact of projects

Through the analysis of the Hacks, three main parameters related to the development of an engaging and continuously evolving system became apparent. The first refers to the importance of the rules provided by the environment and the participants’ goals and desires. Furthermore, the extent of participants’ understanding that can help them form tactics plays an important role. In most of the projects, people were not willing to participate, if they did not know the basic rules of the system or have the necessary skills that a meaningful interaction requires. However, there were cases when the participants were constrained by their knowledge. Finally, a parameter that showed to have a significant impact in the evolution of the system is the number of people that co-exist and collaborate in it. The projects showed that collective interactive behaviours become more complex and evolving than individual ones.

The above three parameters became the basis of the analysis of the following theories, concepts and examples of existing continuously evolving systems.


4.0 Human goals in relation to the developed tactics

Gordon Pask (1971, p.76) notes that ‘Man is always aiming to achieve some goal and he is always looking for new goals‘. Moreover, he argues that humans are triggered by ‘novelty’ (Pask, 1971, p.76). According to him (Pask, 1971, p.76) the driving force for humans’ actions is their tendency to discover and learn about their environment in order to understand and control it.

Following this idea, it could be argued that an unknown system would trigger someone to enter into it, aiming to understand and trivialize it. However, as observed in Body-Hack and Bench-Hack people were not willing to explore the systems and they needed us (my collaborators and me) to set a goal and stimulate their exploration.

Merleau-Ponty (2002) defines two ways in which people relate with their environment. The one refers to their ability to move and is related to an active verb like ‘grasp’ (Merleau-Ponty, 2002, p.118). In this case, the body acts in order to achieve a specific goal, for example to grasp something. In contrast, the second is related to knowledge and cognition. In the first case, the body is affected, and its spatiality is ‘spatiality of situation’, while in the second it is ‘spatiality of position’ (Merleau-Ponty, 2002, p.115).

The above description not only distinguishes action from passiveness but also relates an action to its effect (e.g., someone’s movement of grasping a cup with the result, which is having a cup in his/her hands). Actions are developed towards goals. So, a goal refers to the expected outcome of a finished action. Centuries earlier, Aristotle made a distinction between two types of causes related to a movement that is developed towards a goal [2] (Aristotle, 1930). These are the ‘efficient’ and the ‘final’ cause (Von Foerster, 2003a, p.205). The efficient cause (‘the mover’ (Aristotle, 1930, 198a23-24)) refers to the pure movement that caused the effect, while the final cause (‘that for the sake of which’ (Aristotle, 1930, 198a23-24)) is the goal or desire that caused the movement (Aristotle, 1930).

An action does not only aim to achieve a goal, but it is also justified by this goal. So, in the Hacks, people needed goals to be provided by us directly (in Body-Hack) or indirectly (in Auditorium-Hack) because a goal could give meaning to their tactics and because goals provided by the system were making their actions legitimate.

At this point, it is relevant the concept of ‘voluntary activity’ to be mentioned (Rosenblueth, Wiener and Bigelow, 1943, p.19). According to this, every time we act voluntarily we do not choose the ‘specific movement’ that we will do something, but we choose the ‘specific purpose’ that will make us act (Rosenblueth, Wiener and Bigelow, 1943, p.19). This analysis puts the existence of a goal as the essential element for triggering an action towards a future achievement. Furthermore, as Von Foerster (2003a, p.206) concludes at any moment we are free to act toward the future we desire’, meaning that the future is not restrained by the rules and general facts of the past, but it can be changed or evolved by our actions towards our desires.

However, how can participants develop voluntary activities by forming their own goals or following their desires and feel comfortable to explore new ways of operating? The Hacks showed that in order for people to feel comfortable to set and follow their own goals, they need to have a specific level of skills and understanding over the system. In the Bench-Hack people tended to use the bench only in the ways they already knew and in both Stairs- and Auditorium-Hack people chose to change the goals that had already been set by the system or add parameters to them after they felt that they had mastered the system. Therefore, participants’ understanding proves to be potent and will be subsequently analyzed.


5.0 Legibility of the situation in relation to people’s tactics

It became apparent from the Hacks that the participants need to have enough knowledge and skills when the interaction is starting, so they can make use of the system and develop their goals and tactics. Furthermore, reaching for goals that do not seem unachievable is important for the interactions to start. As Robert J. Sternberg (2006, p.89) states ‘one needs to know enough about a field to move it forward’. For example, introducing the system to the participants by giving a set of initial instructions (written or verbal) or a demonstration of it can help them understand their basic capabilities and tools that they can use to form their tactics.

However, if the instructions cover the full spectrum of possible actions, there is nothing for the participants to discover. In this case, their responses may be constrained to the initial rules and become trivial, without the participants being able to see beyond the already known possibilities. Moreover, from the point that a system is mastered, without new challenges, it becomes a trivial machine that stops triggering people’s new responses and a set of specific, well-defined actions is formed. For example, Sternberg (2006, p.89) describing the observations of a study on expert and novice bridge players notes that when a ‘deep-structural change was made in the structure of the game, the experts initially were hurt more than the novices’. The experts later recovered. However, Sternberg (2006, p.89) suspects that the reason for the experts’ difficulty to adapt is that they make deeper use of a system. They have formulated the way they think. So, when a change is happening, they have to transform their thinking by using their past knowledge.

Gordon Pask through his works [3], investigated the creation of mechanisms that can adapt to participants’ performance, creating a continuously challenging environment. Α project with this type of behaviour is MusiColour [4] designed by Robin McKinnon-Wood and Gordon Pask (Pask, 1971). It was a spatial element producing light patterns based on the sound frequencies and the rhythm when music was played. This machine could be trained and adapt to the musician’s performance, while it would ‘get bored’ or change its preferred frequency every time the musician was playing in a static rhythm or a consistent frequency range (Pask, 1971, p.80). Therefore, the performer’s achievements in mastering the system were followed by the introduction of new behavioural properties or functions of the environment and the subsequent increment of complexity (Pask, 1971, p.86). So, the machine could perform ‘as a game player capable of habituating at several levels, to the performer’s gambits’ (Pask, 1971, p.78)

The Hacks also showed the importance of increasing complexity in a non-trivial, continuously evolving system. As observed, a system needed to seem simple enough for someone to be willing to enter in it. However, every time the participants were reaching a certain level of knowledge in relation to the function of the system, they were asking for new more difficult tasks, or they were changing their behaviour or goals trying to make their task harder. The creation of tasks that were becoming progressively harder was helping them feel comfortable and gradually explore the possibilities of the system.

So, the complexity of participants’ goals or interactions in a system could be gradually increased due to the design of the system and the behaviour of the environment or due to the participants themselves. These two ways will be analyzed and compared concerning the legibility of the system and the development of participants’ tactics.

5.1 Types of systems of progressive complexity

The types of systems that will be examined are (1) modular systems, (2) succession of goal-based levels of difficulty and (3) different levels of hidden complexities. The first refers to systems which can support the development of tactics by participants with different levels of knowledge, but only the participants can set goals and increase their difficulty. The second type refers to systems

which set the goals, introduce new behavioural properties and increase the difficulty for participants’ tasks according to participants performance. The third type combines characteristics of both previous systems in order to let participants set goals for themselves and support the development of tactics by participants with different levels of knowledge while being able to introduce new properties based on participants performance and gained skills.

5.1.1 Modular systems

These refer to systems like the Bench-Hack. This system is considered to be of increasing complexity since it works as an interface through which people can create, from the simplest to very complex outcomes.

The advantage of these systems is that they have a simple basis. So, it is easy for someone to understand the system’s function from the beginning. However, the development of tactics by the participants depends entirely on their ability and related interests. The system cannot set goals or tasks to trigger people to participate or help them evolve their knowledge and tactics. As observed in Bench- and Body-Hach when participants are asked just to explore a system they are getting lost by the infinite number of possible actions. Only participants that have interests or knowledge related to a specific system can easily develop tactics in it. Maybe, if an interface could help participants evolve their skills and give them outputs they can understand and appreciate, participants would be more engaged and able to set more and more complex goals over time.

An example of a system in which participants could both discover and create is Bloom [5] designed by Alisa Andrasek and Jose Sanchez within the Bartlett School of Architecture, UCL (Andrasek and Sanchez, 2017). This project challenged participants to assembly and de-assembly its modules and to build three-dimensional forms. Its parts had non-conventional forms challenging people to find the different ways in which they can be connected and leading participants to create complex and peculiar shapes (Andrasek and Sanchez, 2017). It is interesting that a number of initial forms were configured by the Bloom team (Andrasek and Sanchez, 2017, pp.101-2). So, the participants could see the possibilities of the system before they start constructing their own forms. This could stimulate their initial explorations. Furthermore, participants did not have to create their own forms from the beginning but were also able to make changes in the existing forms by adding or removing pieces (Andrasek and Sanchez, 2017, p.102).  So, they could gradually explore the system and form their own goals. Moreover, participants were able through experimentation to discover rules and patterns that apply to the system (Andrasek and Sanchez, 2017, p.100). Discovering hidden rules in an unconventional system could trigger them to search for new ones or transform the discovered ones creating new types of outcomes (Andrasek and Sanchez, 2017, p.103).

Figure 8. Bloom by Alisa Andrasek and Jose Sanchez (Plethora Project, 2012)


5.1.2 Succession of goal-based levels of difficulty

These systems are related to computer game design since they are driven by a series of goals with the level of difficulty increasing according to participants’ performance. This is the main characteristic of computer games, since they are keeping players ‘at the outer edge of, but within, their “regime of competence” ‘ [6] (Gee, 2007, p.36). They manage that by creating ‘well-ordered problems’ (Gee, 2007, p.155). They introduce problems that are merely simple but involve a way of thinking or confronting relationships that will trigger the players to develop related tactics training them to face the next, harder problems. Moreover, if after ‘repeated cycles of extended practice’ (Gee, 2007, p.155) players’ tactics are mastered, new types of problems are offered de-trivializing the system and challenging players’ tactics to evolve.

This was the method that we finally used in the Body-Hack since participants needed a system that can give them tasks that seem challenging, yet achievable. However, if this type of a system becomes over-specified because of its need to reform its rules through time to introduce new properties and goals, it will not be able to support all participants’ exploration. Each participant has different skills and knowledge and needs a different amount of time or number of steps to master the system or a different level of difficulty to be challenged. Also, if the goals are over specified, after the achievement of the final goal the participants’ exploration comes to an end.

Gee (2007) describes a series of methods that computer games design uses in order to face the above problems and customize participants’ experience. Most of the games offer different levels of difficulty with the players able to choose level according to their skills. Moreover, in many cases, games are designed to allow problems to be solved in different ways, giving more freedom to participants’ exploration (Gee, 2007, pp.31-2). Another characteristic that helps beginners to start playing is the ‘smart tools’ (Gee, 2007, pp.150-1). According to these, the virtual avatar of a player is embedded with skills and collaborates with the player or lead him/her through the play. Furthermore, computer games in some cases give the ability to the players to become co-creators. Players are able to use their knowledge in order to design their own virtual landscapes, scenarios or even games (Gee, 2007, p.148). So, although beginners can be triggered by goals and helped by the smart tools, gradually participants can stop counting on the system to give them goals, and they can start setting personal goals and tasks to lead the exploration.

5.1.3 Different levels of hidden complexities

From the systems described above, in the first, the complexity could be gradually increased by the participants, while in the latter the environment introduced new behavioural properties, new rules/goals according to participants’ achievements. Although in the second case, it is easier for people to start interacting and develop tactics, this type of system is not flexible. Whilst a computer game can customize its rules, tools, and goals to its players’ skills, this is not possible in an interactive installation, where people with different skills can enter and leave the interaction at any point.

Nevertheless, the first system provided a fixed interface that enabled participants to use it in different ways according to their knowledge. So, it could be argued that the first system provides a type of customization. However, in the second prototype of Bench-Hach even after a long time of interaction non-musical participants could not learn how to compose a musical piece. This means that although the system could provide different levels of complexity (customization) according to the participants’ existing knowledge, after participants entered the system they could not gain the knowledge needed for the system to operate or evolve their tactics further.

So, how could the idea of a fixed interface (which can be accessible to anyone) be combined with the idea of a system that continuously provides new tools, rules, and behaviours that can challenge participants?

The answer could be found in computer software systems and digital devices (cameras, televisions, phones, etc.). These types of system combine many levels of complexity in one system, with the system containing an infinite number of tools. The ability to find, use and even transform the tools depends on the knowledge of the user. Whenever someone starts using software or device, from the beginning they can find and use the most simple and obvious tools. For example, cameras have many auto-tools (analogous to computer games’ smart tools) which help beginners to take photos with a click and without knowing how to control parameters such as ISO, Focus, etc. Subsequently, through use of the device or software users gain knowledge and their ability to discover and use more complex tools evolves.

An analogous interactive installation is the 21 Balançoires by Mouna Andraos and Melissa Mongiat of Daily tous les jours [7] (Daily tous les jours, 2011). The project consists of 21 swings able to produce sound. The motion of each swing creates a different sound. However, when two or more swings are moving at the same rhythm a new music pattern is created (Daily tous les jours, 2011). Here, two levels of complexity exist in the same interface. The sound related to the movement of a swing is the first, obvious level. However, the creation of a melody by moving more than one swing in the same rhythm is a more complex level, which will be discovered through the interaction.

Moreover, there were parameters in Bloom, which locate it in this category, since it let participants learn while exploring the system. Participants could look at examples of Bloom‘s configurations, edit existing forms and finally develop new creations (Andrasek and Sanchez, 2017). In this way, participants could gradually discover the complexities of Bloom‘s modules and create their own forms.

This system type can be flexible and allow each participant to explore it in their own time while giving them the ability to make gradual discoveries. Each discovery can work simultaneously as a reward and trigger, that can drive participants to explore the system in order to make new ones.

However, if the system is not the one that sets the goals, how can the participants be triggered to enter into the interaction and consequently feel capable of setting their own non-trivial goals? According to Gordon Pask (1971, p.76), people will necessarily start interacting, since humans tend to try to understand their environment in order to be able to control it [8]. An unconventional environment that consists of many different levels of complexity seems the most appealing, since not only it is complex triggering exploration but also its most obvious tools can make it accessible.

Therefore, it could be argued that such a system of simultaneous hidden levels of increasing complexities could gradually convert observers to performers/creators.


6.0 Converting observers to creators

The investigation helped in the formation of a series of conclusions and hypotheses related to the characteristics that an environment should have in order to be able to work as an auto-pedagogical tool with which participants could gradually develop the ability to respond to and set non-trivial (unpredictable, non-standardized) questions through their behaviour and actions. These conclusions led to the formation of the final project Ichni (by M. Chrapana, A. Niaka and I. Ong within the MArch Design for Performance and Interaction), which is being developed as a collective interactivity system consisting of hidden levels of increasing complexity, aiming to continue and stimulate the investigation in the future by testing the hypotheses of the research and showing further leaks and observations.

6.1 Final Design Thesis: Ichni

The basic idea for the development of this project is the creation of a series of choreographic devices [9] that will challenge the body to act in non-trivial manners. However, this time the devices will not be created by hacking existing spaces, but by developing new ones with non-habitual rules. Four spatial choreographic devices (Figure 9) with different functions will form a physical interface with which the participants will be able to transform and create digital shapes projected on the surrounding walls. The physical space is considered to be a non-trivial interface and the projected digital space the interface’s output able to trigger people to set goals for themselves, explore, develop and evolve their tactics.

Figure 9. Ichni, Representation of the choreographic devices(Chrapana, Niaka and Ong, September 2018)


From the beginning of this research, the Hacks showed that there is an important threshold between familiarity and unpredictability of the environment, that can help participants have a basic understanding of the system and feel capable of participating while being challenged. This idea influenced the design of the physical space of the choreographic devices. The design of the four devices drew on forms and mechanisms that are well-known and easily identified by everyone (wheeled frames that can be slid on rails, a semi-circular surface functioning as a seesaw, a field of vertical elastic ropes and cranks used to pull and unroll ropes). However, these mechanisms were reformed, multiplied or combined aiming to shape unknown and challenging spaces that can stimulate participants’ non-trivial actions. The wheeled frames (Figure 9a) are designed to follow crossing paths in different directions forming a transformable space and triggering participants to move them in order to pass through this space. The seesaw (Figure 9b) having the form of a semi-circle and being located on the floor will not let people sit or collaborate, balance or oscillate in the same ways they do on a typical seesaw. The vertical ropes (Figure 9c) will create a relatively dense field triggering participants to push and pull their surrounding space or squish their body in order to move inside it. Finally, the cranks will be used as tools for three people to collaborate by pulling three connected ropes in different directions in order to move an object in the three-dimensional space (Figure 9d). So, although the tool is simple, the collaboration can make the task challenging.

Figure 10. Ichni, First constructed devices (Chrapana, Niaka and Ong, December 2018)


The forces and the movements that the participants will perform will be measured by the three first devices (Figure 10) and translated real-time into digital forces applied into an already designed digital space (Figure 11). This digital space will form a library of the participants’ performance through time. In this way, people will be able to navigate and see the different configurations created in the digital space by the previous participants, by using the fourth device (Figure 9d). So, this device will enable people to start participating as observers, form tactics and collaborate, while using the navigation tool and without needing to set a creative goal. Moreover, they will be able to understand the basic functions and rules of the system and gradually pass from actively observing to exploring the other devices as their creative tools.

Figure 11. Ichni, Translation of participants’ forces inside the VR environment (Chrapana, Niaka and Ong, September 2018)


However, in order for the system to be continuously challenging different levels of hidden complexities will be developed. Although each physical device has a specific effect on the digital space, they consist of more than one element, the combination of which will be able to transform and control the basic effect. For example, if the effect of a device is the application of a force into the digital space, the combination of its elements will be able to change the direction, the intensity or the area in which the force will be applied.

Moreover, the combination of the tools and sub-tools that someone uses can give information about their level of understanding. Therefore, according to someone’s understanding, the system can create in more or less obvious or complex outputs, increasing the difficulty while a participant is using more complex tools. So, by using different levels of hidden complexities, the system aims to support collective interactivities and enable the individuals to identify the effects of their actions, by creating tools with obvious effects for those who enter the system, but also more and more hidden sub-tools that can be perceived only by participants gained a specific level of understanding.


7.0 Conclusion

As observed, people are afraid of the infinite number of potentials that a new system has and are mostly unwilling to start exploring an unknown and complex system. Through this research two main parameters, that can increase participants’ initial understanding and form a continuously challenging environment, were discovered.

The first parameter is related to participants’ interrelationships. The investigation showed that a number of participants in a system can effectively stimulate the constant mutation of the environmental rules or parameters (constant de-trivialization of the system) while enhancing people’s understanding and willingness to participate. This is possible through the sharing of knowledge and responsibility between participants and the interconnection of their tactics. Further, observing other participants interacting or the results of their actions can trigger new participants to enter into the system and enables them to improve their understanding of it. Moreover, their tactics are reformed over time, as they are affected by the other participants’ actions, which became apparent in Auditorium-Hack and examples of collective interactivities formed by children’s games and improvisation techniques like Stanislavski’s Method of Physical Actions.

The second parameter for the formation of a continuously challenging system relies on the rules and tools of the environment, forming different levels of complexity. Through the analysis of systems with increasing complexity a hypothesis was formed regarding the design of a system in which the main tools or functions (the most evident ones) are the most familiar and easy for the participants to understand and as the complexity of the tools increases the tools are designed to be more and more hidden (become the sub-tools). This system is customized to its participants’ skills since beginners can start and gradually integrate their performance in it, while the system remains challenging and non-trivial for the ones who have reached greater knowledge.

The combination of the use of these two parameters in the design of Ichni seeks to formulate a system that can transform observers into composers, showing the extent to which people are willing to shift their existing knowledge and formulate new, unpredictable behaviours by responding to or setting questions to their environment. The project is currently in progress. I hope that on its realization the hypotheses of this investigation will be tested, and new observations and tactics will emerge regarding the development of legitimate, yet non-trivial systems. Hopefully, this project will support the arguments made in this paper by answering the question: Will it be possible for such an environment to stimulate participants’ collaboration and non-trivial (creative) negotiations by progressively leading them from access, through exploration and discovery, to evolution?



[1] According to the Method of Physical Actions, ‘Task’ is defined as ‘what the character has to do, the problem he has to solve, in a Fact to achieve his end.’ (Benedetti, 1998, p.153).

[2] In total, Aristotle distinguished four types of causes for the sufficient justification of any event ‘the matter, the form, the mover, ‘that for the sake of which’ ‘ (Aristotle, 1930, 198a23-24).

[3] Referring to MusiColour by Robin McKinnon-Wood and Gordon Pask (Pask, 1971) and to Pask’s training and teaching machines (Pickering, 2010, pp.325-34).

[4] First demonstrated at Jordan’s Yard, Cambridge in 1953 (Pask, 1971).

[5] The Bloom project was commissioned by the Mayor of London for the 2012 London Olympics (Andrasek and Sanchez, 2017, p. 99).

[6] Gee in using this sentence to describe a successful learning process, in which the ‘new challenges are pleasantly frustrating’ (2007, p.36).

[7] Every spring, from 2011 until now (2018), 21 Balançoires is installed in Montréal’s Quartier des spectacles (Daily tous les jours, 2011).

[8] As Pask describes, this is ‘accurate enough whenever a man is involved in aesthetic activities’ (1971, p.76).

[9] William Forsythe has produced many architecture and performance installations, called by him as Choreographic Objects. As Forsythe describes them, a Choreographic Object ‘is not a substitute for the body, but rather an alternative site for the understanding of potential instigation and organization of action to reside’ (Forsythe, no date). The purpose of Ichni can find similarities with them.



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Image References

Figure 1. Munari, B. (1944) Uno torna a casa stanco per aver lavorato tutto il giorno e trova una poltrona scomoda, page detail, Available from: (accessed 15 June 2018)

Figure 2. Chrapana, M., Niaka, A. and Ong I. (February 2018) Reconfiguring the body, Diagram of the different complicities.

Figure 3. Chrapana, M., Niaka, A. and Ong I. (April 2018) Mind your step, Photographs of the moving platforms.

Figure 4. Chrapana, M., Niaka, A. and Ong I. (April 2018) Mind your step, Chronophotography of the interactions.


Figure 5. Chrapana, M., Niaka, A. and Ong I. (April 2018) Don’t be a couch potato.

Figure 6. Chrapana, M., Niaka, A. and Ong I. (May 2018) Transformable Bench – 1st prototype, A configuration created by the participants.

Figure 7. Chrapana, M., Niaka, A. and Ong I. (June 2018) Transformable Bench – 2nd prototype, Photography of the interaction.

Figure 8. Plethora Project (2012) ‘Bloom’, Plethora-Project, Available from: (accessed 30 June 2018)

Figure 9. Chrapana, M., Niaka, A. and Ong I. (September 2018) Ichni, Representation of the choreographic devices.

Figure 10. Chrapana, M., Niaka, A. and Ong I. (September 2018) Ichni, First constructed devices.

Figure 11. Chrapana, M., Niaka, A. and Ong I. (September 2018) Ichni, Translation of participants’ forces inside the VR environment.

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