Following on our research about envisaging the possible designs of a digital commons space for performance artists (http://www.creativeworkslondon.org.uk/cw-news/research-reflections-designing-digital-commons-for-the-performing-arts/), we ran a second workshop as part of British Human-Computer Interaction conference in Lincoln on 14th July.
In this workshop we gathered a small group of 5 participants which included performance artists (some of which had pioneered tools for online performance), performance art theorists, my colleague and co-organiser Gerard Briscoe as a coder and network technologist and myself as a designer. I found the small group particularly appropriate for analysing in-depth highlighted points and moving through the emerging threads in a flexible and agile manner. By the end of the day we had produced a solid set of design considerations and significantly, set future steps towards strategies that were deemed useful for moving forward with the design.
It was clear from the beginning that what we defined as platform had different interpretations for each of the participants and certainly the word platform could not adequately encompass all the possible affordances of the desired outcome. We experimented with a lot of words but in lack of coming up with an adequate one we referred to it generally as a ‘system’. This struggle mirrored perfectly a design consideration we discussed thoroughly during the workshop. System design usually relies in metaphors, i.e. objects that the general users understand as virtual representations of physical objects (e.g. folder, file, recycle bin). But as much useful as metaphors are, they also predetermine in a way the use of a ‘system’. And pre-determined actions are useless when creating an artistic piece, a performance for example. What if, then, we want to design a system outside any kind of metaphor, a system that allows for, improvisation, play and, consequently, serendipity and inspiration?
This was the first significant outcome of the discussion and it enforced relevant comments that were made in the first workshop. Earlier in June it was mentioned that the users of this ‘system’ should be able to design their own experience, as they do in an urban commons space, e.g. a park. During the workshop, this view was extended by discussing the necessity for the ‘system’ to enable users to design the tools they need. Thus, the ‘system’ has to be designed to be more malleable, flexible and be shaped at every step by following more organic patterns of psychological nature, perhaps infuse psychological observations rather than be pre-designed based on metaphors. If one asks any designer they will tell you that constraints are important when designing, and truly so, as constraints offer more opportunities for creative experimentation. However, the designer engrains constraints into the design, even if the design is a product of collaboration between designer and user (co-design). Artists, on the other hand, impose their own constraints when they work. Can a ‘system’ then equip them with tools to create the constraints they wish to work with at each instance instead of offering a set of pre-defined ones? How can a system be decentralised and less bounded even if this means that it will not be as efficient? How can it enable important artistic methods such as improvisation and play?
Designing a malleable interface is a difficult task. Metaphors, boundaries, and constraints do not exist only to help the users but also to help the designers model a possible system. I believe that changing this norm from designing metaphors to designing unfamiliar settings to enable improvisation and artistic creation is a big paradigm shift in interaction design and a very promising one. And it certainly will need the collaboration of more than one or two disciplines to successfully create innovative ‘systems’ for specialised users (like performance artists or others). As well, a malleable interface needs de facto to run on open source code to allow the creation and appropriation of different instances of it. The next step we faced then was how to go about designing something like this. It was then that we all mentioned the necessity of truly transdisciplinary collaboration.
Looking at the process that brought us to this result, I observed that I learned a lot talking to performance artists and understanding their perspective, their ‘metaphors’ and semantic language that help them work. I was not the only one to make this observation and after identifying this design process at a meta-level, the final round of discussions then focused on how to bring the creative technologists, designers and the performance artists, two disciplines (initially at least) with different skills, understandings, and priorities, closer together and build the right vocabulary (not limited to text or speech) that can be used for both to collaborate. In the digital tech world a lot of effort is put on efficiency, in the artistic world none. Artists and coders have different working methods. What would be the outcome if we were to take both groups and have them understand each other’s field as preparation for another round of in depth discussions?
We shall see in the next set of workshops that are coming soon. As always, if you are interested in participating contact me with a few sentences about your background and interest in the topic at firstname.lastname@example.org.