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Wednesday 26 February 2014

Tom Uglow: Play and the city

Tom Uglow Tom Uglow

Playable City is a competition run by Bristol's Watershed, which awards an annual prize to the best example of an intelligently-connected urban environment. Last year, the award was won by PAN Studio with their project Hello Lamp Post. Returning as a judge this year is Google's Tom Uglow. We caught up with Tom to ask him about what a more playable, interactive urban environment should be like.

What does the concept of a "playable city" mean to you?

TU: A playable city is a counterpoint to a super-connected city... not that connected cities are a bad thing, but where’s the fun? Ultimately, we all know there is more to life than efficiency and machines [and] projects like Playable City are at the vanguard of contemporary culture, exploring the incredible potential of our new digital infrastructure in order to help us understand ourselves and our world.

We are way past being thrilled at playing with a touch-screen, but we remember the first-time awe of it, and we’d love to see people use technology to create that same sensation from touching a tree, or standing in a bus queue.


What are the challenges for playable city projects? How can they evolve beyond small projects into mechanics for wider participation and appreciation of city living?

TU: I think that the challenges are about our perception of value, which in turn prevents institutions supporting similar projects in a significant way. Society funds high culture like opera, art and literature to allow it to reach new audiences, to remind us of our human capacity to project emotion and find deep human truths that are impossible to express. Projects like Playable City face challenges in enabling audiences to see beyond depth, beyond ‘digital'. Folks think that we mean a games console, or online video, or just mindless noise.

Our society values art and science; we show the greatest reverence to periods of history that are rich in technological or cultural development, yet we are frequently unwilling to actually support innovation in our own backyard. We like old art. So, it makes sense that these sorts of projects start with the adventurous grass-roots organisations, like the Watershed, and in Bristol, a city with a history of challenging convention and embracing cultural and technical innovation.

To what extent could/should playable city projects be interactive? Can they also be passive?

TU: Nothing in an urban space is that passive once you move beyond billboards, and I quite like billboards for interactive opportunities. It seems hard to imagine something ‘playable’ that one just watches.

I expect a shortlist full of challenging, engaging, and curiosity-inspiring interactions; preferably with a strong sense of the physical, the non-digital, and the actual physical city around us, rather than screens, or robots, or websites or apps. Enchanting the real world with digital is often quite challenging, but you certainly need to interact with the work. The idea of digital as a separate aesthetic is a red herring; digital isn’t a type of art, just like it isn’t a type of work in the work place. Digital embraces all forms of culture, and can be used to change any kind of experience. How that new way of thinking emerges through the creative act is going to be fascinating. The richest projects will let people experience something without even noticing that there is a ‘digital’ component. They should really just feel fun.


Interactive urban projects often attempt to work with a specific urban environment. Is there a challenge for such projects to hit a broader cross-section of people in situ - such as those who live in their own home, drive to work or the shops and back again, never really interacting with their place at large?

TU: That feels like a better one for artists, designers, or creatives to answer. It is hard for projects on limited budgets to ask the participants to be capable of scaling with no extra resource. Of course, it would be great, and if there is a natural idea that scales elegantly to people in their own discrete environment, or to anyone in the UK (or in fact, anyone in the world), then it’s a bonus. But, scale in and of itself feels like quite a severe parameter to apply. It’s a challenge, but I don’t think it is part of the criteria.


Should the technology behind such projects have built-in obsolescence? So, as their technology will be leapfrogged in a few years, any permanent or semi-permanent installation should only last for a short time?

TU: Yes. While I don’t think building-in obsolescence is necessary, the obsolescence is unavoidable, both at a software and hardware level. Unlike an oil painting, these works will not live in the public mind and be venerated for 500 years; it is a changed world. Unlike the Renaissance, there are now millions of creative people with access to extraordinary tools and free distribution platforms. It is not comfortable news, but in our disposable world, we have few examples of technology that do not, within a few years, feel like antiquities.

We need to learn more from theatre how to value the actual experience of the moment, rather than clinging to artifacts.


To what extent should interactive urban projects be about solving pre-existing problems within society?

TU: That feels like quite a broad question... like asking to what extent journalism should be about solving societal problems. Different types of urban projects do different things. Design practice tends towards a problematic process of identifying and ‘solving’. Interactive urban experiences have plenty of scope for both practices, and when we create a category of ‘play’ then we have plenty of space for either. Let’s start off optimistically and see what turns up.


Although you are acting as judge in a personal capacity, do you see the increasing involvement of Google in artistic endeavours such as DevArt as being indicative of a wider recognition and support of digital creativity?

TU: DevArt is a fantastic initiative and it looks to encourage coders and the developer community to position themselves more comprehensively in the field of creative expression. It is great for authentic developer artists, and hopefully will be a fantastic show.

From a creative perspective, we also have the Google Cultural Institute, the Art Project, and a number of smaller projects like our work with the RSC last summer and Exquisite Forest at the Tate. These kind of collaborations date all the way back to our collaboration with the LSO on the YouTube Symphony Orchestra in 2008, so I don’t think DevArt marks a new direction, but it might be that the rest of the cultural community is recognising that some truly interesting work is going on in the area of digital creativity.

For what it's worth, it is important that the ‘digital’ we see in projects like DevArt is not defined as a separate aesthetic; a label for the lazy that ‘defines’ digital creativity. There is no such thing; there are coders making art, but that is no more digital than writers using the Internet, or composers sampling pixel redraw, or choreographers working with motion capture.

It is reductive to put digital into a box; ‘net art’ or ‘dev art’ are just short phases in a fast moving world where, no matter how hard we try, we will never stamp out artists’ desire to use new tools and technology to express themselves.

Tom Uglow is Creative Director at Google Creative Lab, and is @tomux on Twitter. Playable City is open for submissions until 11/04/14; further information is available at the Watershed website.

Paul is the publisher of Imperica.

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