Standing beneath the work of Philip Beesley Architect Inc., keeping your jaw closed and eyes on where you’re walking are tall orders. Delicate and yet aggressive structures of webs and skeletons ascend above you, colourful mixtures of wet chemicals swishing and condensing throughout. The experience is not unlike drifting through a coral reef, except that the reef floats above rather than unfurls below… kelp forests might be a better comparison. A diversity of strange forms abound, resembling creatures that would look at home in the ocean’s hyper-pressurized depths. The interplay between phyla and species makes it difficult at first to contextualize Beesley’s pieces in human terms, and yet they are decidedly technological… mechanical mutations thriving at the fringe of some emergent ecological niche.
After an afternoon spent at Sargasso (the architect’s most recent Canadian installation, and a highlight of the 2011 Luminato Festival) I had to learn more about the motivations behind this exciting new work, as well as the tools required to realize it. In a series of conversations with Philip Beesley and Rob Gorbet, one of the architect’s closest collaborators, I learned about both, as well as how innovative approaches to architecture and interactive storytelling might have more in common than I had presumed.
Philip Beesley’s work has parallel foundations in professional architecture and contemporary sculpture, and he sees the collision of these circles as a valuable foundation upon which to ask questions about the nature of interrelated systems. Rob Gorbet teaches electrical, computer, and mechanical engineering at the University of Waterloo; but one of his favourite educational efforts is a course pairing sculpture students with upper-year engineers to explore models for collaboration. Beesley and Gorbet’s collaboration is therefore not only an opportunity for artist to engage engineer; it’s an opportunity to compare strategies for sharing across disciplines, vocabularies, and metrics of success.
In our discussions, Gorbet referred to the “consultant versus collaborator” choice often presented to engineers working with artists. While he tends to begin his working relationships with artists as the former, he prefers the latter for its emphasis on “Why?” questions and mind-bending learning experiences. I’m in alignment – my personal experience has been that competition within silos or fields tends to encourage excellence, while collaboration between disciplines more often rewards interestingness. Beesley articulates his motivation for working with outsiders in a slightly different way – it’s an opportunity to ensure genuine incompletion, and to encourage disjunctive mutations within a suitably resilient environment. Whether in biology or collaborative creativity, productive mismatches can lead to amazing innovations.
The twitching and cascading Hylozoic series of installations have evolved through an iterative design and prototyping process into a fascinating diversity of forms. In order to realize their vision and keep up with a self-imposed evolutionary arms race of innovation, Beesley and Gorbet have had to design just as exotic an array of production tools. The materials used in the construction of the Hylozoic series, for instance, range from hyperbolic meshwork scaffolds to shape-memory alloy actuators; electrogalvanic bladders to components fabricated from biodegradable cellulose.
But the new tools being utilized to solve problems at PBAI aren’t all material. A sharp young engineer named Jonathan Lau is collaborating with Beesley and Gorbet on the development of a simulator that will capture data from the firm’s various physical installations; providing the opportunity to analyze specific behaviours after-the-fact, or from thousands of kilometres away. This is important because one of the most interesting attributes of Beesley’s works is the way in which they respond to the physical environments in which they are situated. The space in which any work of art is installed will shape it physically and situate it contextually over the course of its lifespan; but Hylozoic Soil physically responds to individual users engaging it through a network of whiskers and fronds, altering its overall systemic behaviour in response to the sum of those interactions over time.
While a work of architecture that responds to user interaction is amazing enough, that response is really only as good as the emotions it evokes. Over lunch one day, Gorbet and I discussed the work of Paul Ekman; which suggests that although physical expressions are tied to a diversity of underlying emotions across human cultures, a few basic emotions (anger, disgust, fear, happiness, sadness, and surprise) are associated with certain facial expressions almost universally. In order to convey emotional expressions outside of that basic set in high-tech installations, work is underway at PBAI to motion capture Beesley’s physical interpretations of concepts like grace, and elegance. By capturing and quantifying the architect’s various physical expressions of an emotion, behaviours can be designed and uploaded to his installations that, while not necessarily universally understandable, bring the pieces to life in new and exciting ways.
After engaging Beesley and Gorbet in conversation, and spending an afternoon at the PBAI studio in Toronto’s west end, I felt as though I’d had my mind opened up in a dozen new directions… but once I sat down to write this piece, I began to wonder why these thinkers’ astute reflections on technique and motivation seemed so familiar to me. I realized that it was because “good” experimental architecture and “good” digital storytelling have more in common than I’d assumed: risky collaborations between creative types from different fields seem to be behind the most interesting works in both realms. So do deep conceptual and technical investigations into the quantification and translation of emotional experience. Same with the design of new tools for concocting and measuring meaningful interaction.
I thought back to a conversation I’d had with Philip Beesley about his work, and how he’d tackled the creation of something emphatically new and experimental that would nonetheless need to resonate with audiences lacking a formal context for approaching it – a potential problem for architects and interactive storytellers alike. His feeling was that art culture, with its exclusive and sophisticated knowledge; is often positioned against mass culture, seen as having brutal or reductive qualities… but that this need not be the case. Beesley’s philosophy is that the appeal of collective experience runs so deep that perhaps the primary pursuit of creators across cultural, critical, and formal boundaries should be collective delight. Curiosity as inseparable from interconnection. Life as inseparable from matter.
Trevor Haldenby is an interactive producer and photographer living in Toronto. He has attended Wilfrid Laurier University, Rhode Island School of Design, CFC Media Lab, and is presently completing a Master’s of Design in Strategic Foresight & Innovation at OCAD University.
@trevver | www.longexposure.ca | www.zed.to