Making waves around the world – an international collaborative approach to bring digital art experiences to life
“With media saturation around climate change issues, we wanted to create something that raised awareness of human impact on our oceans, whilst also bringing joy to people”
-Robin McNicholas, Creative Director, Marshmallow Laser Feast
Combining the real, physical space and the virtual world, A Colossal Wave brings a collective participatory art experience to public spaces. It was conceived and created by Marshmallow Laser Feast and its partners to bring a sense of slapstick fun and curiosity to people, whilst taking a unique approach to raising awareness of ocean pollution.
Co-commissioned by the British Council, Hull UK City of Culture 2017 and Partenariat du Quartier des spectacles, A Colossal Wave was developed to celebrate the creative partnership between Montreal and Hull.
Inspiration for the project
When developing A Colossal Wave, the team were inspired by themes that explored the natural environment and the links between the two cities.
With both Montreal and Hull being closely connected with water, the ocean provided the perfect inspiration. The starting point was the catastrophic destruction caused by human activity such as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. Furthermore, the team imagined how the world beyond the present geological age might manifest itself, free from human impact.
The project wasn’t only driven by the present and future, but by the past too. “As the commission celebrated Montreal’s 375th anniversary, we were inspired by the coincidence with Sir Isaac Newton’s birth” explains Robin. This link proved crucial in exploring interconnected spaces based on Newton’s principle of “For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction”.
What was produced
Mixing art with technology, A Colossal Wave engages the participant’s sight, sound and touch to give a multi-sensory experience, spread across three interconnected locations. The complex, multi-location installation gives members of the general public the chance be an active participant in a collective mixed reality experience.
The indoor location gives participants the chance to enter a virtual world and create individual ‘voice fruit’, each representing a manmade particle of pollution. These are all unique creations varying in size, shape and colour, which are triggered and formed by the participant singing. They see the creation forming before their eyes, whilst hearing an altered and comedic version of their voice. Within this space there is an added sensory element in the form of a giant fuzzy sphere at its core, that participants can touch throughout the experience.
The indoor space is connected with two outdoor locations. There is a 9 metre tower, which participants climb to the top of to release a bowling ball, hitting a giant metal disc on a mattress at its base. This disruptive action triggers a tidal wave of VR voice fruits (produced by the people in the inside space), directly into the headsets of the participants in the third location. The final space is made up of four VR umbrella pods where participants can see the voice fruits that were created by the people taking part in the indoor experience.
“We wanted to create a playful space that mixed the physical and virtual, to create a spectacle that would spark people’s curiosity and sense of joy. We wanted people to experience something they’d never experienced before. And how often do you get to experience the thrill of dropping a bowling ball off a tower?” observes Robin.
The importance of collaboration and collective experiences
The spirit of trans-Atlantic collaboration brought together artists and technologists from across the UK and Canada. This included digital creative studio, DPT; immersive audio firm, Headspace and Montreal-based artist PressTube, who hand drew the animation pieces in Oculus VR. “For the real and virtual spaces to work together, it was important to have a human giving a sense of the person behind the tech” explains Robin.
Human interaction was a central part of this project, from the collaborative approach to development through to the collective experience when participating. “We were mindful that VR is often quite a solitary experience, however for us, bringing people together for a collective and inter-dependent experience was at the heart of the project” explains Robin.
“When you put on a VR headset, you’re in effect blinding yourself in the real world. That puts people in a vulnerable position”.
Putting participants at ease was something the team saw as crucial to the project’s success, as it relies wholly on active participation in order to work. “The installation could potentially put people outside their comfort zone as they are doing something that they wouldn’t do every day; if ever” explains Robin. “Instilling a sense of fun and slapstick was a driving force for us, so we had to ensure that activities such as putting on a VR headset, or singing in public, didn’t become a barrier to participation.”
The team used various design devices and logistical solutions to address this issue. The physical spaces were designed to be welcoming, in addition to playing with participants senses. For example, the umbrellas covered people’s heads for the outdoor experience, not only to protect participants and equipment from the elements, but also to help them feel less vulnerable wearing a headset in an outdoor public space. Additionally, playing back people’s singing through the headsets in an altered way helped to overcome any self-conciousness participants may have felt singing in front of others, whilst also adding a comedic element.
Robin also believes that recruiting local volunteers as guides played a crucial part in engaging participants. “Being guided by someone who you can relate to helps to put you at ease, so you’re more likely to enjoy it and get fully involved”.
Technical and logistical challenges
The biggest challenge faced on the project was around logistics. As an installation, A Colossal Wave is, quite simply, colossal. With around eight tonnes of kit, moving it, especially between different countries took significant planning at considerable expense. “it’s something you have to take into account when producing large scale installations, rather than a headset based project” notes Robin.
Bringing technology to an outdoor space also raised issues. “Having an outdoor experience means you’re exposed to the elements, which brings unique technological challenges” explains Robin. “In Montreal, it was so hot, the kit started to melt; a completely different challenge to Hull’s marina; cold and windy in December, both of which impacted on the experience.”
Funding and sustainability
As an SME, Marshmallow Laser Feast are also challenged in balancing its art and experimental based projects with its commercial, client focussed work. “It’s not sustainable for us to focus solely on our art-based projects” explains Robin; “however, they are a fundamental part of our business. By working on such unique and high-profile projects, we get the chance to push the boundaries of innovation and showcase our skills as creators, which is crucial in attracting clients to work with on more commercially driven projects.”
Broader challenges: skills shortages
Robin also sees the lack of relevant skills as a threat to the success of the immersive tech sector and fears that the UK could fall behind other countries who are taking a co-ordinated approach to nurturing talent and addressing skills gaps within this emerging sector.
“As there’s a relatively small talent pool in the UK, those with the skills we’re needing are often naturally more attracted to gaming companies who are creating male-dominated projects. Getting the right people, with the right skills is a challenge, especially for companies who are taking a unique approach in embracing immersive technologies.” explains Robin.
Robin sees real potential for immersive technologies to be used to address serious issues to a broad range of audiences.
“By embracing this technology in a creative way, we can inspire and connect with a diversity of people in unique and exciting ways.”