People As Performers: Setting The Stage For Interaction

Last year, SEGD invited us to create an art installation at the Lovejoy Fountain for a one-night event during Design Week Portland. As we delved into the project, we learned that, almost 50 years ago, Lawrence Halprin designed the Lovejoy Fountain with this intention: “In the plaza there should be events…sculpture shows–concerts–dance events with dancers all over and arriving to center space from down stairs around fountain…” A fountain designed for artistic expression? Count us in!

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A stage for interaction

The Lovejoy Fountain is a hidden gem, tucked between residential buildings in downtown Portland, OR. The radiating geometric design creates cascades of stages that jet out around the water. Our aim was to use technology and sculpture to highlight and extend these architectural features without obstructing the natural beauty of the fountain or preventing people from exploring it up close. We were excited about the opportunity to move beyond the bounds of the screen and create an immersive experience rooted in place.

People as performers

Halprin’s original vision for the fountain sequence inspired us to focus on the idea of people as performers. How could we craft an installation that would invite visitors to direct an experience for the audience? What would it look like? How could we engage both the passive observer and active participant?

Given the theatrical metaphor of the fountain as a stage, we began to focus on creating an opportunity for visitors to seamlessly step between the roles of director, performer, and spectator throughout the evening.

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Not so fast

Like any open-ended ask, it was difficult to settle upon a direction. Projection mapping? Spatial audio? Floating, robotically-controlled pico projectors? How will people know how to trigger the installation? Maybe we should hire an improvisational dance troupe to demonstrate how to play the fountain?

Amidst our excitement, we had to keep a few things in mind…we are dealing with a body of water. We have 8 hours to install in daylight. Then, at dusk, it is showtime for 3 hours. Everything has to be torn down by midnight. Oh, and the event is in October, so it might rain. Well…how are we going to…nevermind. This is Portland! We know how to deal with a bit of rain, right? We’ll figure it out…

After imagining many ways to activate the space, thinking through a few prototype ideas, and visiting the fountain to test out our ideas, we landed on our final concept:

  • The fountain would serve as an armature for a large-scale string sculpture that would reference the radiating, geometric forms of Halprin’s architecture.
  • The fluorescent string would be activated throughout the night by strategically placed Ultraviolet and RGB lights that were controlled by attendees via a central mixing console.
  • Ambient, interactive sound design would add further dimensionality to the experience, connecting both observer and participant and drawing in those passing by.

Getting real fast

With the concept finalized, we had approximately two weeks before the event to handle equipment rentals and design and build our experience.

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Sculpture

We made multiple visits to the fountain to brainstorm mounting strategies and forms for the sculpture. During one of these visits, we had the very good fortune of encountering the fountain when the water had been turned off for maintenance. We discovered previously hidden connection points and tie-offs for the sculpture which enabled us to create a structural plan that could achieve our ambitious vision.

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Console

A custom mixing console became the focal point of interaction with six sliding interfaces that invited visitors to direct the interplay of lighting, sound, shadow, and form. A single weekend spent soldering, spray-painting, and making last minute fabrication adjustments helped bring the console to life.

Software  

Given the tight timing of the install and the fact that a majority of the hardware would not be in our hands until the day of the event, it became essential to design a software system that was as flexible as possible. Our selection of tools and the structure of the code evolved around the ability to quickly debug, edit, and configure behavior in real time.

A flexible, modular design enabled us to troubleshoot unexpected behaviors and make modifications on the day of the event. We built in capabilities that allowed us to tweak the color and behavior of the installation in real time. While our visitors were directing the immediate experience, we had the ability to shape the parameters within which they were interacting, adapting to the changing ambience as dusk turned into darkness.

Sound

Given the fact that the fountain is situated in a residential area, it was important that any sound accompaniment be appealing and unintrusive. We composed six ambient sound loops of varying lengths and connected to the volume of each sound to the same user inputs applied to the lights. The different durations of each loop and the inclusion of plenty of silent space within each sound resulted in a shifting soundscape that weaved in and out of perception rather than bombarding the senses.

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Transforming the fountain

The morning of the event, we arrived at the fountain ready to jump in the water and install all 500 yards of green and pink string that comprised the sculpture. While the string was being mounted, our lighting vendor, Portland Productions, showed up at 10 a.m. with a truckload of equipment. Once everything was unloaded, we were on our own to test and mount lights, assign DMX channels, and run cabling. Moments after the the final cables were taped and the lights and sound were up and running, it was time for the evening to begin.

Showtime

We were thrilled to see that people naturally took on the performance roles we had imagined. Children and adults made their directorial debut while others preferred a front row seat. Turns out, we didn’t even have to hire that improv dance troupe. One woman felt moved to dance and took center stage for a solo performance– a highlight of the evening. See for yourself on our project page.

It was a pleasure to sit back and watch people engage with our creation and experience Halprin’s fountain in a new light. While the event was brief, the impression it made on our team was lasting. We left the fountain feeling inspired and eager to continue exploring the possibilities when art, technology, and public space converge to connect people and place.

– Laura Allcorn, Senior Content Strategist, & Chris Carlson, Interactive Developer

Final photo by Bruce Forster

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