When we call art ‘‘experimental,’’ the loose implication is that it is innovative or avant-garde. We’re primed to wonder what makes it radically different. But we can also start to think about whether or not an “experimental” work is a prototype (or derived from one) and consider what makes it a test of some hypothesis.
The dictionary defines the word prototype as “an original model on which something is patterned.” A prototype does not necessarily need to be fully functional or ready to be copied. It does, however, need to challenge assumptions and set new goals or redefine existing ones. Like experimentation more generally, it is a way to proof concepts, unsettle assumptions, and learn from mistakes.
Prototyping is essential for public art, which needs to be engineered to hold up against the elements of the environment, the whims of the public, and its own construction.
When thinking about the role of the scientific method in creative development, prototyping is key. Yet, the idea that something creative can originate from the scientific method is more generally agreed upon in the field of design than it is in the sphere of art. This is because the latter is typically esteemed for being expressive and coming from some internal place, while the former is subjected to precise constraints and measurable objectives—usually by some outside party. In either case, though, when the thing being created needs to stand up to some kind of pressures—having to do with user experience (UX) and structure, for example—there is a strong chance it will take shape as a prototype first.
Art is science when it embraces prototyping
With art, there’s a variable scale of being able to anticipate whether something will come out right the first time or only upon the tenth try. Prototyping to get to that optimal version can consist of user-experience testing. It can also consist of experimenting with materials. Moreover, prototyping is essential for public art, which needs to be engineered to hold up against the elements of the environment, the whims of the public, and its own construction. Some of New American Public Art’s case studies provide evidence for this claim. Here are two stories from the archive that demonstrate—in New American Public Art’s words—to build is to know.
Prototyping through UX feedback
Between a Mirror and a Memory challenges our abilities of self-recognition and our assumptions of the present moment. Viewers encounter a monitor featuring a live video feed with a temporal delay. The delay is timed to create a cognitive disconnection, yet remain intimately familiar. Viewers are faced with observing their “selves” from the near past, but just beyond immediate memory. They react to their reaction, which they will in turn perceive again. The experience exists in the slippery space between past and present moments, recognition and unbelief, and between the self and the other. (NAPA 2015)
The effect achieved by Between a Mirror and a Memory was not one that could have been achieved with accuracy on the first try. It went something like this:
Hypothesis: watching a live feed of yourself that’s slightly delayed is unsettling Prototype: set up a video system with a variable temporal delay First Iteration: a one-second temporal delay Result: people feel like they’re watching themselves in a glitchy Skype session Second Iteration: the temporal delay is adjusted to sixty seconds Result: people feel like they’re watching a fragment of a home movie Third Iteration: the temporal delay is adjusted to eight seconds Result: User Experience: people feel like they’re apprehending themselves just beyond immediate memory Conclusion: An eight-second delay is the sweet spot; people describe the experience as “ a continual feeling of déjà vu that you’re unable to catch up with.”
Prototyping and experimentation in Between a Mirror and a Memory revealed temporal links between our attention spans and our self-conceptions just beyond ‘real-time’. The result relied heavily on user-experience testing. Many of NAPA’s other projects rely less on UX testing and much more heavily on prototyping with materials and structures. Thought Follows Action is one notable example.
Prototyping through material lessons
Thought Follows Action was the culmination of NAPA researching Buckminster Fuller’s geodesic structures and instructing a class on fabricating them at the Artisan’s Asylum makerspace. During the course of the class, when approached by TEDx Somerville for an iconic entrance piece for their conference, NAPA decided that the geodesic sphere—which can be scaled to be very large without requiring much material—made perfect sense.
Experimenting with small-scale geodesic domes in the class had revealed that the structures could be made relatively easily out of an open framework of triangles bolted together at their vertices, constructed out of thin plywood strips or out of EMT pipes.
Made out of either material, when two spheres of varying sizes are nested and connected by rope, they can be spun, creating a kinetic sculpture. Masonite tileboard was selected as a replacement for plywood to fit within the budget allotted by TEDx, but fabricating large spheres out of masonite offered some valuable lessons for materials testing. Namely: "it is the first use of a particular experiment that establishes new knowledge – the replications are intended to confirm it" (Macdonald and Basu 2008).
Hypothesis: masonite tileboard is a suitable material for building large geodesic spheres Prototype: build a masonite sphere with a five-foot diameter Result: the structure holds up—the entire weight of the five-foot sphere can be supported while resting on the ground on any of its triangular vertices First Iteration: build a second masonite sphere with a nine-foot diameter Result: the material begins to crack under its own weight, and only remains intact when suspended off the ground from reinforced steel hubs Conclusion: at a scale somewhere between five feet and nine feet, masonite is no longer a suitable material for building geodesic spheres
Soon after TEDx, NAPA received a grant to remake Thought Follows Action for a juried, outdoor art exhibit in Chapel Hill, NC called Sculpture Visions. During this second experiment, they tested another material.
Hypothesis: EMT pipes are a suitable material for building nine-foot diameter geodesic spheres Prototype: build a geodesic sphere out of EMT pipes with a five-foot diameter Result: the structure holds up incredibly well, supporting the weight of an entire person
Second Iteration: build a nine-foot diameter geodesic sphere out of EMT pipes Result: the structure holds up Conclusion: EMT pipe, though methodologically more challenging to work with, is better suited than plywood or masonite for building geodesic spheres with diameters larger than five-feet
This case clearly demonstrates: “It’s worth reflecting that tensions and fractures and glitches of all sorts reveal opportunity” (Nowviskie 2015). It also illustrates how cases that allow for temporary art installations to be repeated allow for further experimentation and learning.
As the next post in this series will demonstrate, all experimentation and results—much like sources of inspiration—should be documented in a shareable way. This makes it possible for confirmed knowledge to be distributed and appropriated for further iteration. Put another way, experiments can be seen as having an exhibitionary quality and scientific documentation can be understood as a permutation of the writing on the wall of the gallery.
The prototype—the system formed to test an initial hypothesis— serves as a basis for further iteration through which artists can determine whether the work holds up to their expectations, experientially and structurally.
Our plea for scientific experimentation in the arts includes documentation of the process of prototyping. This post sets a minimal example of what we, here at NAPA, mean by this. Admittedly, it’s a tall order to ask for art to be systematically pursued, unambiguously described, transparent with respect to evidence and method, and aimed at producing communicable knowledge. Therefore, Post 3 of this series will provide examples of platforms and practices that make it easier.