Building, playing, hacking, remembering: an afternoon at Cinekid’s 2015 Technological Imaginary masterclasses
After more than a decade of showing innovative technologies for interactive art and media projects at its youth-oriented playground, the Cinekid MediaLab – where film, television and new media meet – decided in 2014 to expand the scope to adults with its first New Media Conference. The conference, titled New Creative Technologies, focussed on the use of multidisciplinary research, collaborations and art practices within children’s media and beyond.
As we noticed in the MediaLab, the professionals attending the conference were eager to do more. Thus, as part of the 2015 Cinekid for Professionals program, more than 40 creatives – from backgrounds as diverse as film, television, games and new media – came together in four groups corresponding to four masterclasses: Social Hacking, Play, Responsive Memories, and Minecraft. The masterclasses, which were created by key new media artists and developers, were based on the same theme as this year’s MediaLab: the Technological Imaginary, a dual realm where dreams of creating a better world or escaping this world are both possible.
Participants were eager not only to challenge their perceptions of games, playing together, memory, and social interaction, but also excited to get inspired and learn from each other.
This brief report recaps the technologies used in each Cinekid Masterclass, the insights gained by those taking part and the concepts that emerged during the workshops.
About the workshop: Why is Minecraft the preferred space to be, to play in, and to build for more than 70 million users all over the world, most of them children? In this masterclass participants were invited to have a go, to play and build under the watchful eye of coach Adam Clarke.
About Adam: He uses Minecraft to inspire and entertain, working with institutions, museums, schools and companies to find groundbreaking ways to interact with young gamers. Adam recently worked on Tate Worlds, helping Tate to recreate part of its collection in Minecraft.
How the masterclass went:
In a nutshell, Minecraft is a game about placing blocks to build anything a user can imagine. However, at night monsters come out, so players need to have a shelter ready to take cover in. Sounds simple enough, right? The 70 million Minecraft users around the world would readily disagree.
Ever since the first version came out in 2009, builders constructed the wildest structures imaginable, such as ancient temples, while many are modding Minecraft – writing code changes to modify the game world’s behavior – and even monetizing their work via Youtube, such as the famous DanTDM and his sitcom-like missions.
As each participant shyly grabbed a seat facing one of the six computers in the room, Adam reminded them that, unlike in the other masterclasses where attendees are expected to produce new ideas, “this is an opportunity for sitting down and having time to play”.
He then patiently walked the participants through the basics of Minecraft, from ‘punching’ trees to gather wood and make the planks necessary for building the nightly shelters, and even took them as far as showing them Tinkercad, a piece of software which allows Minecraft enthusiasts to create and export 3D designs into their game world.
The most exciting aspect of the workshop was why people, Adam included, had wanted to learn more about playing Minecraft. For instance, one of the participants was working on children’s course that may combine Minecraft, Tinkercad and VR (virtual reality) in an attempt to help kids gain useful software skills while working in collaborative fashion.
Another participant was in the business of developing games that help children cope with issues such as anxiety and depression. She was hoping to understand whether kids could use Minecraft not just for building objects, but also for achieving emotional resilience.
Adam revealed that his son Django Moses is also an avid Minecraft player, having started on his father’s lap at the tender age of 3. Adam and Django still play together (see the hilarious Superhero Rescue / Makeover videos), showing that beyond Minecraft’s endless creative possibilities lays its ability to make people forge stronger emotional bonds.
About the workshop: This masterclass examined how structures and systems of social interactions, identity and self-representation can be de- or reconstructed through technology. Kyle and Lauren worked expanding people’s ideas about how they can use new platforms and technologies to affect interactions.
About Lauren and Kyle:
Lauren is an artist and programmer. She is full-time faculty at NYU ITP (Interactive Telecommunications Program), and has worked on, among others, installations for the London Eye, IBM, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and Thomas Jefferson’ s home at Monticello.
Kyle is an artist who works in the open with code. He is a contributor to arts-engineering toolkits such as openFrameworks and builds tools that allow artists to use algorithms in creative ways. Kyle is also member of F.A.T. Lab and adjunct professor at NYU ITP.
How the masterclass went:
“We are good at putting ourselves in boxes”, Kyle remarked during the workshop intro before emphasizing that there are many opportunities in technology and social interactions to break conventions and think outside the proverbial box.
Some of these opportunities come in the form of the four exercises that participants became familiar with weeks before the workshop. Each person got a different assignment involving one of the Glitchat, If Face Then That, Soundboard and Tagged platforms built by Lauren and Kyle.
It was immediately clear how Tagged works: participants had to stick on nametags that their peers created by snooping around on Google and social media to find out a person’s key – or, better said, stereotypical – traits. The results were as comical as Mr. Made-in-the-USA-Emo-Gamer and Massive-Space-Invader-Peitzner.
All the other platforms were also excellently introduced through a mix of theoretical background, imagery and videos. For instance, to explain If Face Then That, Lauren and Kyle first threw back to the 1960s, when computers were aiding humans with face identification and culminated with the status quo, namely and the ubiquity of face tracking, which has commercial uses by companies like Affectiva (capitalizing on expression analysis to create resonating marketing strategies) or surveillance purposes (the NSA collects 55 thousand faces each day).
If Face Then That uses a facial expression analysis tool called clmtrackr, which runs on the platform’s webpage. This automates an action triggered by the user’s facial expression. The action is carried out with IFTTT (If This Then That), a famous tool for automating things online, which uses simple ‘recipes’ connecting social media to other services (i.e. if you miss a phone call, add a reminder to Google Calendar).
Participants were instructed to prepare a recipe, leave the browser running for at least 30 minutes – while working on other things – and thus allowing the recipe to execute. During the workshop, they were tasked with performing their recipe.
One of the most striking elements of the masterclass was how the platforms built by Lauren and Kyle seemed to unlock creative potential. For If Face Then That a person tried to create an ‘emotional jukebox’, which played a song on Soundcloud to match his facial expressions (happy or sad, for instance) and sent him an email informing him about each expression. Fun fact: when he left the browser and recipe running as instructed, he was bombarded with emails telling him how angry he looked. Lesson: don’t type and frown, kids!
Participants were also inspired to conceptualize their own platforms. In an idea based on Glitchat, which explores the effects of introducing ‘glitches’ (swapping around words and phrases) into normal online conversations, people came up with a ‘cultural translator’ to ease communication between different cultures. However, instead of ‘glitches’ that foster disconnect (i.e. replacing ‘the’ with ‘crazy’), participants envisioned a platform that alters tone, such as changing the abrupt ‘this is wrong’ to the positive ‘maybe we could do this better’.
About Zuraida: Also known as Zo-II, the organisation she founded to curate, consult and document events focused on playful culture. She believes in the interplay of on- and offline communities to stimulate creativity and collaboration. Zuraida also co-founded the Dutch PAF (Playful Arts Festival), which explores crossovers between art, play, interaction, technology and design.
About the workshop: ‘Gaming’ is still mainly seen as addictive and numbing as playing a first-person on your PC or Candy Crush on your smartphone. In this masterclass, digital gaming was connected to a more physical form of ‘playing’, related to spaces of togetherness, which can stimulate the imagination and foster creativity.
How the masterclass went:
Participants got an inkling of the fun times they were in for once Zuraida asked them to rearrange the tables in the room to leave more space in the middle for playing. That, and the fact that Adriaan de Jongh, who was supposed to co-host the workshop but unfortunately fell ill, was still present on a chair in the form of two wooden spoons and a couple of lemons.
Zuraida opened with an informative introduction into different forms of playing. After a theoretical overview, referring to seminal works such as Huizinga’s Homo Ludens and his description of one of the fundamental elements of human culture – the instinct for play – she showed examples of new ways to combine digital and physical playing. These ranged from playing Doom with a piano or the 3D Pac-Man experience of Babycastles, in which the game is projected on a room’s four walls and ceiling. All of the case studies served to emphasize the possibilities of making both on- and offline gaming more cheerful and able to spark curiosity.
Participants were also often prompted to play. In one of the exercises, Zuraida asked participants to pick their favorite animal. After this, they each had to perform the behavior of their animal of choice. Expected interactions happened, such as the ‘wolf’ starting to chase the ‘rabbit’, as well as humorous instances of the ‘monkey’ attempting to climb a tree painted on a wall or a ‘cat’ dozing off on the sofa at the back of the room.
The magic of a group working together and creating a game from scratch was by far the highlight of the workshop. Unsure of what first to call it – it was originally named ‘Random Object then ‘X is Y’ – the participants powered through a new storytelling-based game that involves passing a personal object to the person next to you, who then has to reveal its actual purpose. A USB charger was actually used to its owner at night, a travel first aid kit was no less than a medical super heroine’s secret stash of gadgets, and an ordinary piece of candy was of cosmic significance, holding the Milky Way inside, to give just a few examples.
Participants also provided great insights into the potential uses of the games they created. ‘X is Y’ was seen as universally useful icebreaker, but also as a means to dispel boredom in a classroom setting or a therapeutic tool that allows people to share personal struggles through storytelling. These reflections added a more serious tone to the masterclass, proving that fun and games in communal spaces can also be introspective and personally meaningful.
About Matt and Rachel:
Matt is a co-founder of Bare Conductive, a company that operates at the intersection of design, technology and material innovation. Bare Conductive manufactures a suite of technologies, such as the Touch Board and Electric Paint, which connect any surface, object or space to the digital world.
Rachel is the founder of School of Machines, Making & Make-Believe, which creates experimental learning formats. She is dedicated to the imaginative and nonsensical exploration of art, technology, and human connection, in addition to being passionate about interactivity and storytelling.
About the workshop: Matt and Rachel worked with the participants on linking self-reflection, personal memories, and interactivity in the physical space using the Touch Board technology, a piece of hardware that turns any material or surface into a sensor. Participants used it to turn personal memories into combined interactive and (musical) memory collages.
How the masterclass went:
Entering the room of the Responsive Memories masterclass was like sneaking into a kid artist’s dream lab, plastered in Play-Doh, aluminum foil, kitchen sponges, cables and strings, markers and crayons, photos and colorful drawings, where participants tinkered away with their Touch Boards or coated their drawings and collages in Electric Paint.
While some people enhanced collages prepared in advance by infusing them with conductive capacities, others discarded their assignments and started on something completely new, sometimes combining memories with their peer. Two participants built a small world hidden under a table, which detailed the journey from a noisy, crowded urban setting to the calm, serene riverbank (see video below).
They were trying to connect their surfaces of choice to sound files, such as bike bells ringing, which were stored on micro SD cards connected to the Touch Boards. Touching the ‘buttons’ participants created on their surfaces would trigger the sounds and enable them to tell stories in an interactive, highly evocative way. Throughout this creative process, Rachel would contribute the expertise gained at the School of MA, where she helps students with devising new storytelling and learning formats, while Matt explained the ins and outs of the Bare Conductive technology in what could be described as a mini-crash course in engineering.
It’s always said that kids learn fastest, their brains absorbing information at astonishing rates. But adults can also be quick to leverage new technologies in innovative ways. One participant initially struggled with the Bare Conductive hardware and, in a flash of inspiration, took just 20 minutes to create an interactive collage about a beach episode of child epilepsy, where the sounds of her pouring water from one cup to another were followed by a screeching noise in her head, which then gave way to the soothing tones of Barber’s Adagio for Strings as she lay down in the sun.
As Matt quipped that “an interface [built using Bare Conductive] can be city-wide”, it became clear that childlike enthusiasm knows no boundaries. Participants demonstrated to their audience and themselves that, with the right technologies, guidance and thirst for newness, the whole world is a digital playground.
All in all, the first Cinekid Masterclasses were an inspiring event that gave participants from diverse backgrounds the opportunity to collaborate in a fun and meaningful way, to examine their personal skills in a new light, and to develop storytelling techniques based on innovative technologies.