Exhibition Review | HUM(AI)N: Being Human in the Age of Technology (PHI)

Layout Configuration

The theme of this exhibition revolved around the question of what it means to be human when the machines have become an inseparable part of us, and when the human and its surroundings have both become the subjects of the computer simulation with the use of AI and VR technologies. The total time frame per ticket was three hours. It consisted of nine interactive pieces, six of which were Virtual Reality works and three others were centered around AI. Six of them were located in the main hall lit by a high-key ambient/natural light penetrated through side windows. Three other works were located inside a dark hall with no windows and arranged in three distinct zones (layout plan >).

HUMAIN

Due to the plenty of VR headsets, computers, cables and other supplementary devices in such exhibitions, it is always a technical challenge to keep the hardware away from the circulation paths. However, I barely noticed any problem of this sort in any of the VR events I attended at Phi so far. In this last one in particular, the idea of centralizing all the machines in one room (shown in layout) and exposing them through transparent partitions was very effective; it not only made the exhibition spaces tidy but also in sync with the exhibition theme brought the material aspect running behind the virtual scenes to the front. I spent a good amount of time just walking around that glass room observing the machines that were demonstrated as a stand-alone display.

Among the types of navigational path introduced in the Exhibition Design book by Philip Hughes book, this exhibition utilized the methods of both “Multiple Path” and “Areas of Affinity” (pp.75-78). As such, the visitors could create their own trajectory based on their own preference and the queue of each VR content. Since this exhibition’s main goal was not to display any sort of physical artefact it could definitely be considered as an “experience-based” rather than “Object-based exhibition” (p.30). Therefore, interaction design criteria introduced by Hughes, especially the intuitiveness of the digital interfaces (pp. 154,155) become the essential matter of the overall experience. The various levels and complexities of interaction mechanics in each piece is one of the reasons why this exhibition and most of the other VR events at Phi attract a broad range of age groups.

Dark Hall - Formal Design Aspects

I found lighting a special design challenge in VR exhibitions. The moment the visitor puts the helmet on they become the blinded performers of the installation scenery, staged under the accent lightings. This could make them feel vulnerable and less ready to immerse themselves into the virtual experience. The dark hall (shown in the layout), with low-key artificial lighting was usually given to either totally non-VR installations or those with physical installation as an integral part of the experience. I normally felt better losing myself in the experiences taking place in that hall. In this particular event, David Usher’s work, We Could Be Human; AI Learning Machine was staged at the beginning of the hall. It was not a VR experience and the visitor could start chatting with an AI agent visualized on a large screen.

Das Totale Tanz Theater was the next piece located in the dark hall. This was the only VR piece in which the physical installation was substantially taken into consideration. A semi-transparent cylindrical mesh around this multiplayer VR installation created a canvas for the 360 projection lighting. Although the players’ silhouette were visible behind the mesh and as such they were exposed as part of the physical spectacle of the show, they were also provided with enough privacy.

Das Totale Tanz Theater
Image Source: Phi Center Website

Vincent Morriset’s Vast Body was the last non-VR piece situated at the end of this space and shared in three completely private curtained rooms. The only sources of light were a spotlight above and the illumination of the screen in front of you which mirrored your live image. The moment you start to move, you notice that a prerecorded image sequences of the dancer superimposed on your footage starts to play in such a way that it seems like mimicking your movements.

Graphic Design

As for the graphics, information provided for each piece on the opaque plexiglass panels were not very legible and hence not encouraging to read due to the lack of contrast especially under the fairly bright ambient light in the main hall (p. 114). Notability, for the exact same reason I always found the Phi building sign quite hard to detect from the outside, especially in the winter. The provided brochures have always been very informative and helpful in letting me mark and distinguish the finished and remaining contents and manage my itinerary plan within the short timespan of the event. Most importantly, the role of the guide staff and VR player spotters have always been substantial to the smooth navigation throughout the Phi exhibitions I have attended. Perhaps that is the main reason why visitors of different levels of knowledge about the immersive technologies have become the potential audience of their exhibitions.

Curation of the Contents

In my view, the memorability of this exhibition and perhaps all other previous ones I attended at Phi mostly relied on the micro experience of each individual piece and then the curation of the contents. This happens when the majority of contents have are actually isolated VR experiences with their own unique aesthetics. Bringing all these contents under one uniting theme is in fact a challenge for VR exhibitions in general. It is because they normally have to host a very diverse range of VR art works of various genres, from 360 film-like videos to fully interactive game-like experiences as well as non-VR pieces in a single event. And this is partly related to the disparity of experiments that still exists in this medium. This event was not an exception in that regards; in my view, many of the chosen contents were not necessarily resonating with the exhibition topic and its title.

Following are the five pieces I found most inspiring to my research from different angels: 

Ayahuasca: Kosmic Journey (AtlasV, 2019) was the only work I found to be sharing a traditional and out of reach experience of a certain place and culture via the affordances of VR; it starts with putting the viewer inside a temple like atmosphere in the rainforest while sitting in front of a shaman and a huge tree behind him. This experience is full of visceral effects; starting from the moment where you are swallowed by a giant snake, you pass through an unending tunnel of fractal patterns morphing into each other in front you which results in a hypnotic atmosphere.

Das Totale Tanz Theater (Interactive Media Foundation, 2019) was a good example of using scale to viscerally affect the viewer; it is a multiplayer experience shared with four audience simultaneously; they are able to see other player’s virtual avatar in different distances. Players are elevated up gradually in the vast architectural space of the never built Tatlin’s Tower while encountering different groups of ballet dancers.

BattleScar (Martín Allais & Nico Casavecchia, 2019) is a very good example of manipulating scale in VR as a cinematic shot framing device for a linear narrative; it stages the characters and their surroundings in different scales at different sequences of the story in order to change the psychological distance between the viewer and the 3d characters in accordance with the mood of that particular scene.

Emergence (Universal Everything, 2019) was the most interactive game-like VR experience. The player is floating up over a large crowd of human characters, tiny and in distance, whose movements are procedurally affected by the animation of the one glowing character controlled by the player via a joystick. The behavioral algorithm of the crowd radically changes as the player proceeds the levels.

Algorithmic Perfumery (Frederik Duerinck, 2019) was perhaps the most unique experience of all; the visitors become an active participant in creating a customized perfume backed with machine learning technology. After finishing a personality test, you witness how different concentrates are mixed in front of you in a contraption line which leaves you with a small bottle of generated perfume. Labeled with your own chosen title, this bottle became a souvenir from the whole event. You are also asked to evaluate your perfume right after testing it and as such contribute to the precision of the algorithm as well.

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