article by Elizabeth McDonald
Or “Memory Cloud”: a transformation of Trafalgar Square, London into a transient, illusory environment where images of text – generated by the cell phones of passersby – were projected into a smoke-filled atmosphere overhead.
Or, finally, “Becoming Animal”: a performance piece in which participants wearing techy-looking dog masks were invited to interact with a digitally generated Kerbores (based on the mythical canine) which responds to the behavior of the participant based on tracked facial expressions and movements.
With their new book, Enabling, and a recent exhibit at the AA in London, Minimaforms continue to explore the ability of architecture and design to truly engage an audience and spark social dialogue.
But how does such highly experiential work – defined by ever-shifting variables like sound, light, time, and human interaction – get produced? We spoke with Stephen about how one goes about prototyping novelty and wonder.
Can you describe the design process for creating the more temporal or fluid elements of your work?
“Memory Cloud” was an idea that we have been working on for the last four years. It started through some experiments we were developing trying to visualize spoken word. As we developed prototypes of the project we thought about the ancient practices of visual communication such as smoke signaling, which is over 5,000 years old.
This model offered us the opportunity to hybridize with an interface that people felt very comfortable with such as SMS. This old visual practice and contemporary communication of SMS allowed us to think of creating an artistic platform for a large population of participants to interact with from all parts of the world – one that would materialize their conversation as part of a collective shared experience. “Memory Cloud” was successful because people saw themselves and each other.
Can you describe any “break-through” moments in the evolution of the project?
Over four years in development, beta versions of “Memory Cloud” evolved through prototypes installed as public interventions under the name “Smoke Signals.” Following the success of these two earlier experiments, “Memory Cloud” was installed for two-and-a-half hours each evening. Over the three nights, a total of 1,500 messages were projected. Conversations emerged in unexpected and curious forms. In many ways, “Memory Cloud” offered participants the ability to lose themselves through the evolving relationships with the piece and each other. Their messages shaped the space of interaction and offered stimulus for further exchange.
The interactions were not something that you can plan in a traditional manner, because you really don’t know how people will respond to the work in a given context. There is a lot of uncertainty with it and that is where the work takes on the character and intimacy of a particular moment in time. We find this very exciting.
You really don’t know how people will respond to the work in a given context.
What’s required to transform a good idea into a fully realized project?
Time and patience. Ideas need to find their form, and at times this demands that they evolve within the framework needed to fully realize them. In many of our works, we have had ideas that have been worked over 4-5 years before they materialized in the appropriate environment.
What differing roles do you [Stephen] and Theo assume as creative partners? Is there a standard division of labor?
Theo is based in London and I am in New York. We communicate everyday, and operate as a small network. As both our schedules and small-scale practice would suggest, we have a lot traveling and commitments internationally. We use this to our advantage and embrace the dynamic nature of our current model to structure how we work on a case-by-case scenario. As we prototype many of the projects in the studio, dedicated time in both London and New York are part of our everyday. Theo for example spends 4-5 months of the year in New York.
In terms of division of labor, we have our own specialties, and, depending on the project, there are moments that one or the other of us may take the lead on development. My background in interaction design lends itself more to the technical aspects of the work, while Theo’s background in architecture lends itself more to the material and spatial aspects. What is interesting for us is that the projects determine the terms of how we work.
We have had ideas that have been worked over 4-5 years before they materialized in the appropriate environment.
Traditionally, architecture has no real metrics for defining the success, unlike some other forms of design (such as product or industrial design). How do you, as designers, measure the impact of your work?
For us, this comes down to the curiosity that emerges when you give people the opportunity to engage and participate. They become playful and explore and transform the work in ways that bring about an active form of novelty. We call it systemic play. We do not try to measure but observe the qualities of these interactions and seek opportunities to explore them further.