Two interactive installations on Southbank

Fiona and I encountered two interactive installations on Southbank on Monday, on the way back from having seen the Kandinsky exhibition at the Tate Modern. The first was play.orchestra, a sound installation from the Philharmonia Orchestra. Next to it, outside the Royal Festival Hall, was a fountain installation, which I find out in retrospect is called Appearing Rooms, by the artist Jeppe Hein.

Play.orchestra describes itself as a 'virtual orchestra', and consists of a number of white boxes, laid out in a rough orchestra formation. Each box has an illustration of an instrument on top, and inside is a big bassy speaker, which plays part of an orchestral score whenever the box is sat on. When enough people sit on enough of the boxes, the combined sound plays out as one of a number of classical compositions.

Or at least, that's the theory. When I walked past, it was a wet and cloudy autumnal afternoon, with few people around, and so it was impossible to get the full effect. It was interesting to observe a few effects around how people were interacting with the installation though. First, the seats were wet, as it had just been raining. More than being wet in fact, as the pressure of numerous buttocks on the plastic cubes had caused an impression on the perspex surfaces, so that puddles of water had formed. Not wanting to get soggy trouser bottoms, most people, myself included, tried to brush the water off, and then, not having satisfied themselves as to the relative dryness of the seat, decided to stand on them instead. This was expressly forbidden in a note hastily tacked onto the floor, should you happen to read it, on both health and safety grounds, and so as not to damage the equipment. Given the lack of a dry alternative however, and the eagerness to find out if it worked, standing seemed to be the done thing on my visit. Lesson 1: don't expect people to read, and obey, your instructions.

The second thing I noticed was how frustrated people got when they sat on a seat and it didn't make an instant sound. Indeed the first question in the FAQ on the website for the installation is 'why doesn't my seat make a sound?' Their answer is that 'in most [classical] music, not every instrument plays all of the time - it would be too exhasuting for the player'. They say that they've chosen music that uses the full orchestra a lot of the time, and suggest that you should wait 20 seconds and listen carefully to hear your seat make a sound. For many people though, especially kids, 20 seconds was too long to wait for some kind of positive feedback to your interaction, and as a result people kept switching seats to 'find one that works'. This effect was possibly confounded by some of the seats not actually working, although there was no way to find out if this was the case or not. For some of the kids taking part, the frustration was so much that they were jumping up and down on the seats in an attempt to make something happen.

Lesson 2: give people some instant, positive feedback that their interaction has worked. I might have added a lamp under each seat that lights up as you sit on it, which would both give people an indication that their seat was working and might encourage people to wait a little longer to hear their seat make a sound. Interestingly, their seems to be a fairly strong expectation with people using new media interactives that that things are quite likely to be broken. I've seen this many times with visitors in the Science Museum, sometimes to the extent that people wander off from exhibits, thinking that they're broken, when in fact it's just that they haven't understood it properly. I imagine that this is why most internet browsers have an icon at the top right which animates whilst web pages are downloading - if the animation stops, you know that something's gone wrong.

Play.orchestra was definitely quite cool, even when drastically under capacity. As an artistic piece, I'm not quite sure how well it worked. By interacting with it, you got a bit of a sense of the fun of being within a (virtual) orchestra, but you were also more of a spectator, you involvement limited to turning it on or off rather than having much of a real effect on the composition. Perhaps it's more satisfying with more people - some of the photos show people miming along, and someone cocky taking up a conductor's position - but otherwise, it's not that engaging. There is incidentally though, an entertaining behind-the-scenes news updates page that the production team have written on the website (which they thankfully manage to resist calling a 'blog' for the most part). With loads of pictures and an entertaining, informal style, it's something for us to look up to at the new media department of the Science Museum (see our blog).

The second installation, just a few yeards down the pavement, is the 'Appearing Rooms' fountain. This, by contrast, is a lot simpler, being a load of fountains shooting straight upwards to form a 2x2 square grid, each square five metres wide. The fun comes from the fact that you can walk into the fountain, and that each of the wall segments randomly switches on and off. The volume of water being squirted into the air, combined with the wet and miserable day that I visited on, meant that you really didn't want to get wet, and yet some irresistable urge compelled you to dare yourself to step inside, waiting for some of the fountains to stop to give you your chance. Once inside, you could see why it was called 'Appearing Rooms' - once all the fountains encasing your square were switched on, you were pretty trapped, the water creating walls that were, in effect, impenetrable. With the fountains being randomly controlled, you have no way of knowing how long you are going to be trapped, causing no end of fun. This was especially the case when, as it happened, Fiona and I were in different squares, and I was able to escape before her, enabling me to stand outside and laugh as she got soaked by the water being blown around by the wind.

The fountain is such a simple idea, and yet is a joy to watch and play with. In the ten minutes or so whilst I was there, I saw kids eyes light up with glee at the fun of it, and even saw some smart-suited businessmen pluck up the courage to step inside (only to get fairly wet - haha). The funniest though, was when a woman stepped in just as the fountains started, yelping at the unexpected upward drenching.

The fountain installation recalled an idea I had whilst dreaming up ideas for theme park attractions as child (something I did then and still do now). My idea was to have a simple wooden doorway, through which a path run, embedded into the upper frame of which was a series of water jets and infrared sensors. The door would have a few modes - one where water sprayed down, but suddenly cut off as you walked underneath (daring you to do it), one where water only sprayed down as you walked under, giving you an unexpected soaking (for hot days, or when you're feeling evil), and another where the water would spray mostly randomly. The Appearing Rooms fountains goes to show that these kinds of interactive water features have endless fun potential. Indeed, I spotted one blogger suggesting some ways in which the piece could be extended:

It should divide the space into further smaller rooms. There should be wet rooms where if the user stays in it for too long they will get wet unless they succesfully move to a dry room in time. The interactivity could be further enhanced by the use of lights to signal to the viewer which rooms are dry and which ones will get wet. The sculpture could also detect the number of people in each room and use this to determine which rooms it designates as wet or dry.

My confusion with sculptures like this is where the line is drawn between art and entertainment piece. Do the proposals I suggested to alter Hein’s sculpture stop it from being art? I don’t know.

Play.orchestra is outside the Royal Festival Hall in London until 30th September 2006. Appearing Rooms was on the Royal Festival Hall terrace until 25th September 2006.