Digital placemaking and the arts


6 minute read
Jo Morrison

Jo Morrison

Director of Digital Innovation & Research

Digital Placemaking

Hands holding a phone up in front of street art - abstract shapes in red, orange and purple

Layered Realities, Night Walk for Edinburgh, Brutalist Tapestry, Symbiosia… all recent intriguing projects that involve the artistic exploration of our public spaces through the use of digital technologies and searching storytelling. Whether developing data-driven systems, utilising image and audio AR or pushing the boundaries of 5G infrastructure, arts, culture and technology are inseparable. 

This article highlights a range of ways in which artists are employing technologies to foster a sense of place in beautiful, playful and engaging ways.

Originally published in May 2017.

Art in its purely physical sense, be it octopus murals or favela painting, has been a feature of successful placemaking even before the term was coined. And art has been blurring the lines between the physical landscape and the technological one for decades, in the same way that digital technology has augmented modern placemaking efforts.

The parallels don’t end there. At its heart, placemaking is participatory – encouraging residents to interact with their surroundings in new ways. Similarly, much art practice is becoming less about standing back to admire, and more about stepping forward to get involved. We are increasingly enjoying experiential installations rather than settling for the more passive consumption of art.

In the search for new mediums in which to express their creativity, artists are often first to embrace emergent technologies. A new wave of artists are using digital technology to quench our thirst for interactivity and to foster a sense of place in beautiful, playful and engaging ways.

We’ve already examined Bristol’s Playable City phenomena, complete with its origami animal projections that interact with passers-by and lampposts that can converse with the public via SMS messages, but these examples are very much the tip of the iceberg.

Encapsulating pure critical explorations, themed commissions and art in the name of advertising, we’ve pulled together a diverse range of installations that have technology as their foundation and participation at their core.

Good vibrations

A fantastic example is Theremin Bollards (see video below), an interactive sound sculpture created by a multi-disciplinary team who blend digital and analogue Theremin technologies with sculptural forms to create sonic art works. The project is playful, interactive and social, all tenets of great placemaking. It also takes something everyday and ordinary, and turns it into something special – a concept with echoes of proto-surrealist, conceptual artworks like Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain.

From temporary installations at the Yorkshire Sculpture Park and the Natural History Museum to permanent exhibits at London’s Science Museum and the Strong Museum in New York State, the bollards have proved to be hugely popular with visitors, thanks to their accessibility and eerie interactive soundscapes.

Street furniture has proved to be another popular outlet for artistic endeavour, combining the functional with the magical. In 2014, the streets of Lisbon were the location for an interactive installation that offered a twist on the otherwise utilitarian traffic light. Instead of the standard, stoic, stationary red man, crossing users were treated to an animated, dancing figure. The interactive element here was that the lights were not simply playing an animation on a loop – instead, motion capture technology was used to display the movements of members of the public, dancing in a small booth nearby.

The dancing red man was produced in partnership with car manufacturer Smart, who are not the only brand to use placemaking art as a promotional tool. French billboard giants JCDecaux partnered with designer Mathieu Lehanneur to produce a range of intelligent and interactive street furniture, including The Play Table.

The Play Table was a large, elegantly designed, multi-touch screen designed table, installed in parks and gardens which allowed friends and strangers to sit, and play a variety of games. The juxtaposition of traditional park playthings and contemporary gaming embraces the modernisation of shared spaces, as well as their multi-audience, multi-use nature.

Sensors and the sensory

A low-tech façade hid an equally high-tech statement piece by Zak Jacobson-Weaver. Using the popular Arduino development board and a series of sensors, Zak built a machine, the ‘Auto-Meter Reader Feeder’, to feed extra coins into a parking meter if approached by a traffic warden. Zak could have built a slick, minimalist housing, but instead opted for a steampunk-inspired design with superfluous adornments that served to turn a utilitarian parking meter into an eye-catching installation.

Eye-catching is also the name of the game for innovative installations and interventions design team, Jason Bruges Studio. These large, lollipop shaped installations – commissioned by the Belgian government and installed in a Brussels park – offer more of a passive interaction than some of our previous examples. The Puppetrees translate the sounds around them into the calming rustle of their ‘leaves’, offering a physical manifestation of the aural environment.

Similar in concept is MIT’s Lightbridge, designed by Susanne Seitinger. This 10,000 pixel dynamic display responds to the activities of pedestrians using sensors, buttons and microphones as well as pulling in data related to weather conditions and other external factors. The effect is to create a new kind of street lighting that responds to the needs of its users, creating something that is both beautiful and practical, which may provide a glimpse into the future of our connected cities.

For other artistic avenues, the future is already here. It may seem that society is retreating into a virtual world, interacting with others via the glowing screen in the palms of their hands, but artists are even using this as a conduit to connect with the built environment.

Art of reality

By embracing Augmented Reality (AR), the technology behind the briefly ubiquitous Pokémon Go, artist Ivan Toth Depeña has ‘hidden’ artwork across the city of Miami. Only by downloading his Lapse app and visiting one of six locations can his art be experienced on-screen, superimposed on the urban landscape.

Head south into Mexico and artist Josue Abraham has used the same technology to bring his Virtualidades exhibition to life. What may seem like a simple collection of mundane and discarded objects is transformed with the help of an iPad and the Metaio AR software platform.

In this way, Abraham has taken sculpture out of the physical realm and could have a dramatic impact on the shared spaces of the future and the art within them. It is no accident that Apple purchased Metaio and its technologies in 2015, such is the convergence of art, technology and the built environment.

While the concepts and settings of these examples may be varied, they all share the same goal – creating a participatory experience that draws people into the environment around them and allowing them to connect with it in new, interesting and revealing ways. Whatever the disruptive technologies of the future are, we can be pretty sure that it will be artists who introduce them to the world of placemaking.

Want to find out more about the impact of technology and the spaces that matter to us all? See Calvium’s other articles on digital placemaking.


Featured image credit:

Susanne Seitinger and Pol Pla i Conesa, LightBridge, 2011. Photo: Andy Ryan


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