CINCINNATI — The play begins with color sketch markers stuffed into an acrylic wall rack adjacent to artist Joshua Davis’s room-sized mural. There are no instructions other than a brief warning about the markers’ potential for staining clothes, but every visitor to the ON! Handcrafted Digital Playgrounds exhibition at Cincinnati’s Contemporary Arts Center knows what to do. They grab a favorite color and hit the wall, looking for a crevice of remaining white space to make their painterly contribution to Davis’s artwork, part of a two-piece installation titled “The Lightning Storm.”
The interaction between art and visitor continues until the mural, which began as one of Davis’s mesmerizing, Mayan-inspired designs, transforms into thick layers of color ink comprising an object that no longer resembles anything Davis has done before.
Creative disruption is the theme transformed into experience in ON!, the first museum show curated by Héctor Ayuso, a Barcelona-based artist as well as the creative director and founder of traveling transmedia design conference OFFF. Like most group shows, the work throughout ON! fluctuates in quality and success, but Ayuso raises questions about art, the artist, the viewing landscape, and the viewer. When dealing with beautiful objects, can interaction become a destructive thing? What does an interactive piece need to be complete?
The exhibition explores the ideas about hybrid art, digital innovation, and design that Ayuso and participating artists shared at the one-day OFFF conference that launched the museum show in TED-like fashion. It includes Spanish design siblings Juan and Alejandro Mingarro, co-founders of the Barcelona design studio Brosmind, who contributed a Pop art–inspired, life-size pedal car called “WAGON.” James Paterson, a Montreal-based designer and animator, crafted “The Boolean,” a sprawling, ceiling-mounted sculpture of multicolored paper airplanes, as well as an adjacent work station complete with stacks of paper and a monitor playing a repeating video loop of Paterson instructing visitors how to make their own planes.
During my first visit to ON! during the March premiere, Ayuso was abuzz with energy, balancing a paint roller and tray in hand as he led his creative team through final prep work. But long after the artists have left, I return to see just how sustainable Ayuso’s ideas regarding digital play turn out to be. I want to see the impact of disruption on the various installations.
In the case of Davis’s “Lightning Storm” wall mural, disruption means a transformed work that no longer has much to do with the artist or his talents. It’s been taken over by the show’s theme of play and reinvented as childlike smears of ink and colored splatter on the floor below it.
The second part of the installation, made in collaboration with graphic artist Sara Blake, suffered a sort of reverse fate. Visitors use a prototype Leap Motion 3D gesture-control device to manipulate and control video projections of ten abstract designs by Blake, one for each finger. On premiere night, Davis guided visitors on how to sweep their hands back and forth like ninja yogis. The results were unique: momentary acts of artistic creation and a mix of what museumgoers created via body movement with Blake’s original designs. But on future trips to the show, without Davis onsite to teach visitors or any signage to explain the functionality of the Leap Motion device, the installation shrinks to nothing more than a video projection of Blake’s black-and-white designs.
I know what to do with the Leap Motion and become an impromptu tutor for other visitors. Still, the return trip highlights the sustainability question facing the show: does an exhibition based on interactive play require onsite playmates or artists telling viewers what to do?
Paterson maintains a strong level of interactive play with “The Boolean” thanks to his video instructions that accompany the sculpture. Proof of the continuous engagement can be found in the towering pile of discarded paper airplanes in the corner of the gallery.
UK-born, New York–based artist Jon Burgerman has created a Toontown-like soundstage made of painted plywood called “My Great Movie.” Visitors are invited to step behind his zany, cutout sets and film and photograph their own films. There’s even a megaphone for someone to play the role of director. More importantly, Burgerman continues to build a digital community around his installation by promising prizes to visitors who share their finished products with him via social media.
Also from the UK, artist and designer Brendan Dawes is known as a creative disruptor in the branding community. His contribution is an installation titled “In Receipt of the Now,” which features a large drawn circle and hand outline made of conductive paint connected to a wall-mounted receipt dispenser. It’s unsuccessful each time I visit: the receipts listing the time you touched the installation, Cincinnati weather conditions, and a local news headline never come out of the box. Slapping one’s hand against the wall trying to get “In Receipt of the Now” to work is a reminder of how difficult shifts between the digital landscape and place-based art can be.
“Shout It Out Loud,” by the tech art collective Patchworks, offers the most fun in the show, perhaps because it’s hackathon-inspired, raw, and matter-of-fact. Exposed cables, audio equipment, and a raised computer keyboard are connected to a monitor displaying simple instructions for screaming into floor-stand microphones. You can see your volume measured by the two adjacent light sculptures. The Patchworks team understands that nothing compares to shrieking in a quiet museum gallery, listening to your sounds echo throughout the space and knowing that no security guard will come to take you away.
A quieter form of play comes in Blake’s second installation in the show, “Primary Colors.” A New York–based illustrator and art director for a Fortune 500 corporation, Blake transformed three of her digital illustrations of a butterfly into puzzles.
“This particular exhibition, it’s all stuff you play with, and it’s never going to exist once you take it out of that space,” Blake told me at the start of the show. “It requires the audience to exist in the first place, and that’s a really neat idea and something you don’t see in museums a lot. Museums are normally where you look at the art and you don’t touch it. Not here.”
But “Primary Colors” suffers under this very premise: without an example of the finished art to inspire visitors to pick up the pieces, it never fully comes to life.
That’s a lesson to take away from ON!, more valuable than the illustrated collector cards representing each installation: sometimes, even on the best playgrounds, people don’t want to play and the toys are broken.