One of the enduring points of reference at CAN is the Interactive Architecture Lab, the London-based research group and Masters program at the Bartlett School of Architecture, University College London. Founded by Ruairi Glynn, it draws from both the rich legacy of cybernetics and bold multidisciplinary practice in London architectural education. Regardless of whether you know the lab by name or not, you’ve seen some of their responsive objects, performances, and installations; machine-dancer collaborative choreographies, polyhedral garden robots, and (most recently) demonstrated by the selection of the VR project Palimpsest as our ‘reader’s choice’ favourite and most memorable project of 2016.
Glynn and his collaborators have just launched an academic programme at the Bartlett: Design for Performance & Interaction (DfPI). Given this new initiative, it is an optimal moment to check in with him about the mandate of the program and how it was informed by work produced under his watch in the past. Touching on where performance starts and ends, identifying some key precedents, engaging in some earnest reflection on the state of speculative design and critical making in the UK educational scene, and even pragmatically ruminating on the necessity of video documentation, our exchange with Glynn provides a great overview of the thinking underlying the fledgling programme.
To zoom out and look at things from the perspective of language, the ‘P’ in DfPI foregrounds performance. What exactly is the intent of operating under the umbrella of the performing arts versus architecture or interaction design?
The new programme’s full title is MArch (Masters of Architecture) Design for Performance & Interaction. I concede that’s a bit of a mouthful, but we want to attract applicants from a wide range of backgrounds. The agenda is actually quite antidisciplinary and looking to develop new types of practices that don’t comfortably sit within traditional disciplinary boundaries.
But I will say something about performance because everyone seems to have their own idea of what performance is. Every human interaction is a performance, every material or machine behavior can be discussed in performative terms. Shakespeare famously wrote “all the world’s a stage”, Bruno Latour’s Actor–Network Theories of interaction, and our contemporary theories of embodied interaction all demonstrate how much performance arts can enrich the way we think about how we experience space and interact within it. So at the Bartlett we have a broad view of performance that intersects with a broad approach to interaction, that intersects with a broad interpretation of architecture and design. We leave it to our students and staff to define the parameters of their own engagement with these fields and others.
In our initial conversations you stated that the core belief driving the DfPI programme is the belief that the creation of spaces for performance and the creation of performances within them “are symbiotic design activities.” I’d like to drill into this a bit, can you unpack this synergy for our readers?
This again goes to the idea of breaking down disciplinary and professional boundaries. We want to encourage students to have a more holistic engagement in creating experiences for audiences whether these are in traditional theatrical environments, galleries, public or private spaces. Take for example virtual reality. We think some of the most interesting things happen when you start incorporating other senses like haptics and smell, but that doesn’t happen unless you peel yourself away from your computer and start making physical things. And it swings the other way too. If you’re an architect, you will benefit from discovering and learning to work with technologies that will radically change the way we occupy our homes and workplaces in the coming decades. Same story with artists or choreographers who can extend their art and the environments in which they’re experienced by getting hands on experience with code, electronics, fabrication and theories of interaction, space and performance.
↑ reEarth, Contact, Palimpsest, and Sartoris – a small sampling of the many projects hatched within the Interactive Architecture Lab over the last several years
So amongst the many projects produced within the Interactive Architecture Lab over the years, what initiatives would you say are most emblematic of research you expect will be produced at DfPI?
Felix Faire’s Contact project is a nice example of the intersection between performance and interaction. It’s a tangible audio interface able to turn any surface into a musical instrument using microphones, passive sonar and waveform analysis to recognise information about haptic gestures. Felix has gone on to perform live with it at Sonar Festival and built an architectural scale version of it for the Royal Academy “Sensing Spaces” exhibition.
Ling Tan’s Reality Mediators (2012) which has subsequently been developed into the WearON platform inspired an ongoing interest in “hacking the senses.” Our recent Sarotis project combines soft robotics and 3D cameras to give people a haptic sense of space, enabling them to navigate while blindfolded. Part of this project is hard-nosed academic research leading to a paper for Frontiers of Neuroscience journal on navigation experiments we did. But another part of it is a speculative short film intended to provoke and engage a reaction from the public to the softening interfaces between technology and the body.
Our reEarth project perhaps best represents our speculations on the future of autonomous robotics – soon to be pervasive performers in our cities. We built a three metre tall nomadic geodesic sphere, half garden and half machine. The ‘brain’ consists of an array of electrodes embedded in its plant passengers, that allows the robotic core to monitor the physiological responses of the various species onboard to their environment – such as to reactions to stimuli including light, humidity, and temperature and then roll towards suitable microclimates. So the provocation here is to take the human out of the system and explore other forms of possible hybrid organic-inorganic intelligence.
The final one I’ll mention is our VR project Palimpsest that was the ‘reader’s choice’ on CAN for 2016. It combines 3D scanning and virtual reality to record areas of the city undergoing redevelopment, focusing on capturing and representing the collective memories of the community that might otherwise be lost. The research aims to test if the past, present, and future city could exist in the same place through VR and AR interfaces.
There really isn’t a singular project or two that defines the course easily, so I recommend people who are interested to take a look at our Lab’s archives.
↑ Helping hands: Students wrangle a robot arm in the Bartlett’s Workshop and Archigram’s Peter Cook weighs in during a crit
DfPI is emerging from a decade of research and creation at Central Saint Martins, Royal College of Art, and the Bartlett and endeavours to attract students from as a wide variety of disciplines as possible. Amongst your first wave of applicants what type of experience are you seeing, and how is the programme designed to cultivate a multi- (or anti-) disciplinary approach?
The Media Lab at MIT is perhaps our biggest inspiration with its very explicit antidisciplinary agenda. It’s worth remembering that the Media Lab came out the Architecture School at MIT, so long term, we see the Interactive Architecture Lab expanding similarly. Our new 15 Month programme begins with 6 months of intensive skills, design and theory workshops followed by a 9 month major thesis project. The workshops are group-based so learning to collaborate is essential. We encourage students early on to take courses they’re not familiar with so if you’re a choreographer we might recommend coding, if you’re already a coder we might suggest you explore our robotic fabrication facilities. The succession of introductory skills, design and theory workshops always generates surprising connections that we then critically explore for interesting and original research questions.
“…if you’re a choreographer we might recommend coding, if you’re already a coder we might suggest you explore our robotic fabrication facilities.”
We’re always excited about the new wave of students coming but it’s worth noting the Bartlett has a history of graduates like Usman Haque, Jason Bruges, and Dominic Harris, who came out of our school over a decade ago and are now leading industry figures. The RCA also has a great lineage that stretches back into the ’90s but I was very sad to see the recent closing of the Design Interactions programme. The RCA looks like it’s in real turmoil right now, but we see it as an opportunity to take a leading educational role in London’s multi/anti-disciplinary design scene.
I want to drill into your invocation of the Design Interactions programme a bit. Design fiction and speculative design are sometimes criticised for ‘suggesting’ or ‘implying’ possible futures vs. actually resolving the prototypes or experiences they present. Sure, sometimes starting a conversation or rendering an idea is the point (there sure is a long and important history of ‘paper architecture’) but some projects produced under its banner can definitely be categorized as cynical (or maybe even vapid!) stagecraft. In combing through the documentation of Interactive Architecture Lab Projects I noticed a lot of emphasis on prototyping and assembly so what are your thoughts on finding the right balance between thinking big and doing ‘due diligence’ and adequately engineering a prototype?
Why speculate about the future when its already here? We have drones delivering pizzas, and robot factories building robot taxis, we have Autodesk – who only made drawing software when I was a student – now making an open source program that anyone could use and do DNA engineering in their bedrooms. If Magic Leap lives up to expectations, we’re all going to be living on a holodeck soon. My point is that there is so much exciting technology available now that could radically change every facet of life, that we as a lab, feel the best way to engage in the future, is by manipulating the available technologies of today.
So I favour what some have called a ‘critical making’ approach rather than ‘critical speculative design’. And one of the reasons I favour it aside from simply preferring to make real things rather than represent fictions, is I believe tangible objects often have greater impact in the imagination of the public. If you see a three metre tall spherical robot rolling towards you driven by a garden onboard or even just a film of it driving about, I’d argue that’s going to be more memorable than a photoshopped image or computer generated video can be.
“If you see a three metre tall spherical robot rolling towards you driven by a garden onboard or even just a film of it, that’s going to be more memorable than a photoshopped image.”
But here’s the thing. There are all sorts of approaches to exploring the future of interaction and they all have their advantages and disadvantages. Critical design prolifically occupies one end of the spectrum. At the other end, is the human computer interaction crowd doing there best to make it all very dull in some vain attempt to publish scientific papers. I think we’re not methodologically tied to either end and operate across the spectrum and we play to our strengths too. The Bartlett has the best workshop in any design school I’ve seen anywhere. The largest robotics and digital fabrication facilities of any design school in the UK. And most importantly our tutors are all makers; Just look at the exquisite sound objects of Yuri Suzuki or look at the craft in Marshmallow Laser Feast’s Virtual Environments. Its our own practices that define how we teach.
Since you namechecked Nicholas Negroponte and Anthony Dunne and Fiona Raby: what other designers and educators (past and present) have influenced DfPI’s pedagogy?
Easiest question you’ve asked me: Two old-school grey haired Professors I met at the Bartlett when I was a student.
Ranulph Glanville, who sadly passed away in 2014. He was an architect, composer and artist but above all else a cybernetican (with three doctorates). He helped me to understand how powerful cybernetics was at enriching the way we can think as designers about questions like, what defines the difference between reactivity and interactivity? What defines something as intelligent? What is creativity? He had an ability to judge a student’s level of understanding and then create stepping stone questions that he would lay in front of students as they answered them over the weeks until they arrived through their own effort at (sometimes life changing) realisations. He rarely told you anything as fact, rather he asked you questions and listened to you patiently get their yourself. He was so very generous and patient.
Stephen Gage, He founded the Interactive Architecture Workshop at The Bartlett in the early ’90s that inspired the Lab and I won’t reel off the list of graduates that came out of it but as an educator he’s been prolific. The reason for the success of his graduates comes I think from the fact that he never pushed an agenda of his own on the students. Rather he challenged them to develop their own – which is a hell of challenge but also an amazing opportunity. I can say with absolute certainty that it was getting the chance as a student to develop my own personal and unique agenda that gave me the confidence to develop my own career path. And I think it also made me want to teach, because there is something immensely pleasurable and fulfilling about seeing people grow and find their own voice. For the past decade I’ve taught alongside Stephen and Ranulph and you really couldn’t ask for a better apprenticeship.
In our email conversations you proudly pointed at the wealth of press your past students have received as well as the fact that many of them have gone on to start their own practices (like the aforementioned Usman Haque, Jason Bruges, and Dominic Harris). On the topic of outreach and recognizing latent opportunities, what are your thoughts on the role of the contemporary designer as somebody who can capture the public’s imagination or suss out novel entrepreneurial opportunities? How do these (necessary) realities factor into contemporary education?
It’s really rewarding for the students to see their work published in the press because after months of hard work, it gives them the confidence to continue their projects and agendas beyond graduation. I tell the students ‘the more people who see your work, the more likely the right investor, or curator, or future collaborator will find you and bring the resources you need.’ So I see teaching students the skills to communicate to the public through the press as essential. There’s a lot of good work coming out of design schools that’s all too often poorly documented and communicated, cutting its life short. While there’s no doubt an aura about seeing the physical work or performance, most people now see work through film. So right from the beginning we focus on film documentation. It often outlasts and reaches further than the physical project ever can. Recording the process and refining the message of the thesis project in film to capture the public’s imagination are core activities. We also finish the year with seminars on how to approach the press, employers and festivals.
In terms of sussing out entrepreneurial possibilities, this October we move into one of the largest tech hubs in the UK at the Here East Campus in London’s Olympic Park. We’ve always been closely connected to industry through our tutors who are all practitioners and we bring critics in to tease out commercial possibilities in work. Not all work of course has to be commercialized. We’re an academic research institution and some students go on to do PhD studies. Some go on to develop arts practices and we help those graduates get their first exhibition opportunities. Last year we were exhibiting graduate work at Ars Electronica, this year we’re planning to be at Resonate Festival and Vitra Design Museum, so public engagement takes many digital and physical forms.