Inhabiting the Rainbow: Experiential Contextualism with SOFTlab
In recent years, advancements in digital tools and technologies have provided artists with a new creative outlet for expression. Though not exclusive to these digital trends, interactive art has emerged as a global phenomenon seeking to make art more accessible and engaging for the spectator.
By harnessing new technologies, immersive installations encourage participation from the public on a new level. The installation is no longer a passive bystander but a responsive actor eagerly awaiting the public’s response. The designers behind such projects are typically interested in how the structure will affect its surroundings and how visitors and the site will impact the installation. It’s this relationship between the installation and its environment that creates an impact on how a project can be interpreted.
With immersive installations, it’s the artist’s goal to intentionally design open-ended projects that allow the public to create their own interpretations of the site. For the New York-based design studio, SOFTlab, interactive installation is a design specialty. Throughout their history of custom installation projects, SOFTlab remarks that the public has become “observers, participants, and authors as they are contributing their own memories of the place.” SOFTlab’s focus on experiential contextualism transforms the site from a backdrop that merely hosts their designs to an integral component of the final installation that fosters ongoing dialogue between their intervention and the existing context.
“Infinity Field,” recently installed on the seventh-floor terrace of the ICONSIAM building in Bangkok, Thailand, is SOFTlab’s first permanent interactive installation. This system features 50 vertical chambers clad in one-way mirrored glass that enclose a series of custom programmed sound-responsive LED fixtures. During the day, the sun outshines the LEDS masking the interior behind a mirrored appearance. Yet after sundown, light from within becomes a spatial element that defines a series of infinite reflections across the field of chambers. The resulting cascade of light across the mirrored landscape envelops the visitor as their image is reflected throughout each chamber, temporarily lending the artwork a new character.
The installation’s location along the Chao Phraya River bank is reflected in the ambient state of “Infinity Field,” as the LEDs pulse in a gentle wave animation. This gentle rhythm is disrupted by the voices and steps of visitors who create ripples throughout the LED displays as they move about, giving sound a visual quality that manifests in the chambers’ reflections. Tapping into its urban location and the vibrant hues of a Bangkok sunset, SOFTlab comments, “(that) the vertical repetition of the chambers and the reflections of the skyline gives the impression that you are walking through the city at a strange scale,” causing the installation to begin to blend into Bangkok cityscape beyond.
Before “Infinity Field,” SOFTlab was commissioned to design a temporary art piece for Alexandria, Virginia’s “Site / See: New Views in Old Town,” along the Potomac River. Inspired by the ‘Fresnel Lens’ of the historic lighthouse, the resulting project “Mirror Mirror” became a new beacon for the waterfront attracting visitors to explore and interact with the artwork through a shifting play of reflections and color. Structured in the round like a lighthouse, the installation provides visitors a platform to look outwards through the multi-colored enclosure and be seen from within.
Consisting of a 25′ diameter open circle, the field of prisms form a mirrored enclosure reflecting its surroundings. The simple mirrored appearance is transformed through the activation of LEDs embedded in each prism that reveals a brilliant array of glowing colors within the circle. The microphones installed along the perimeter pick up ambient sounds and register visitors’ movement and location, creating a dynamic exchange between the object and spectator. This ‘forest of light’ reflects and refracts around the plaza connecting the experience of those within the circle to other visitors throughout Alexandria’s Old Town.
In both “Mirror Mirror” and “Infinity Field,” the installation relies on the visitor’s engagement to complete SOFTlab’s vision. By approaching projects through the lens of experiential contextualism, SOFTlab’s immersive installations become a translation of collective experiences of the site’s inhabitants.