Monday 30 June 2014

Assembling Assemblance

This week the Barbican in London is opening its doors to their Digital Revolution exhibition, and we, at Umbrellium, are taking part with a new commission called Assemblance.



It was almost 18 months ago that we were approached by curator Conrad Bodman, who had seen some of our previous large-scale outdoor work – public, spectacular and participatory – and began a conversation about how we might apply a similar approach to constructing an indoor experience in the much more tightly controlled context of an exhibition. We don’t tend to do project pitches or work to solid briefs – our process is iterative and accretive and rarely begins with a single definable idea – so we began experimenting with themes that we had previously had to discard.

In past projects, working outdoors in public space, especially with interactive lights and lasers, we often had to discard experiments that were too subtle to make much sense in the context of a noisy, messy, windy city. At the Barbican, however, the controlled environment of an empty theatre space would give us much wider scope to explore fine details of interaction and participation, as well as a generous production period in which to refine these. Two themes that excited us emerged very early on: first, the idea of using light as if it were a solid, material object; and second, exploring the somewhat blurry distinction between ‘physical’ and ‘virtual’ that is challenged by digital technologies.

Our first ‘sketches’ (which we always do in three-dimensional space) involved working with lasers shining through a variety of media: haze, mica, talcum powder, bubbles, and incense to see how this brought out the materiality of the light, as well as the air currents that gave the media (and therefore the light) a sense of evanescent texture. Building on that process, we created more sophisticated interactive prototypes aimed at giving the laser light a sense of ‘weight’ – for example by making light beams deflect if you bumped into or touched them, or swing from the ceiling like a pendulum. We had to write custom software to control the lasers in realtime response to people’s gestures and movements with the accuracy we wanted, and, as we started adding more components to the system (gentle air cannons to create targeted air movement and attachments for smoke machines to generate precisely the texture of haze that we wanted) our 3d printer had to work round the clock to keep up. Even our configuration and use of lasers is novel (because they are usually used either to project two dimensional patterns or 3d shapes that people observe at a distance, rather than directly manipulating with their hands and bodies) so we had to get deep into regulations and health and safety requirements to ensure full compliance, while also ensuring the magic and wonder of the experience would be brought to its maximum in a public context.

Now, many months and experimental iterations later we are putting the finishing touches on the piece, and these themes have crystallised in the form of an environment filled with three-dimensional interactive light-structures that are created, manipulated and modified by visitors to the space.


Through sweeping gestures and gentle movements that leave trails of light behind and around them, people become players on a stage, collaborating with each other to build complex forms… or destroying them if they’re not careful. At times magical, and at others times slightly sinister, the light structures created in Assemblance have a physical presence, though people may not feel them with their hands.

A little like building sand castles on the beach, generating delicate light-forms in Assemblance requires trust between people who must sometimes suspend disbelief in order to cooperate and co-exist.

In the nineteenth century, we wondered about the distinction between ‘mind’ and ‘body’. Assemblance, an experiment in structuring participation, suggests that we might, in the twenty-first century, be making similarly arbitrary distinctions in separating ‘physical’ from ‘virtual’; ‘real’ from ‘imagined’; and ‘mine’ from ‘yours’.

Our intention here, drawing on our backgrounds in architecture and the design of networked urban infrastructure, is to explore how people relate to each other and to their surrounding environments and how they can create and collaborate on building their own environments and experiences. We put people’s perceptions, experiences and collaborations right at the centre of the project because, particularly in the context of technological developments that mean people can now have an effect on the other side of the world almost instantaneously (for good or bad), intimate and hyperlocal participation becomes even more important and the question of our responsibility, and our culpability, towards each other is thrown up in ways that it hasn't been before. At Umbrellium we are working to develop new ways to work together, rather than against each other, and Assemblance is a particularly deliberate part of that process.


Usman Haque is Founding Partner at Umbrellium and is @uah on Twitter. Digital Revolution starts at the Barbican, London, on 03/07/14; more details here.

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