Zealous Meetups: 5 Lessons from our Latest Panel

Photos by Maria Almena, Tim Murray-Browne, and Aphra Shemza.

We had the privilege of chatting with you lot and hearing the unique stories of Aphra Shemza (media artist), Maria Almena (multimedia artist, Kimatica Studio), and Tim Murray-Browne (creative coder and sound artist). We discussed how to define interactive creative experiences, which, in Tim’s words, “is actually something that happens before you reach words in your head. It’s that feeling of connection.” What’s next on deck for these incredible artists? We’ll give you a hint: tech-based installations and sustainability, neural-network-based learning systems and hallucinations, and light therapy that achieves lucid dreams and altered consciousness. Stay tuned for their latest inventions – and in the meantime, glean five snippets of wisdom from last week’s talk.

1. Follow Your Interests

Society pressures us to choose who we want to be before we know who we are. What are you studying? What’s your 10-year plan? What’s your speciality? These questions make us feel trapped, stagnant – like we’ll never be allowed to change our minds (and that, if we do, we’ll be labelled “indecisive” or “lacking direction”). This pressure disregards personal growth, artistic development, and change in interests or abilities. It assumes we’ll never evolve. Luckily, although each of our panellists have a unique speciality and practise, they also have one thing in common: no one stuck with their original field. Take heart, fellow creatives! Maybe that random Sociology degree isn’t useless after all.

Tim, who studied maths and computer science at university, learned about interactive music whilst pursuing a Ph. D, which led him into the world of interactive installation and using tech onstage. “Although I did a degree in coding, I didn’t really truly enjoy coding until I found this creative outlet for it.” Tim escaped academia after his studies and dove into creative projects with Sound & Music, Music Hackspace, and Aphra! “I still code a lot in the work I do, and I feel that it’s sort of the primary craft that I have.” Aphra, on the other hand, began in the fine arts: “…even there, I was already into UV lights from parties, from the party scene.” She incorporated unique settings and lights into her work from an early stage, using microcontrollers, microelectronics and C++ to process sensory inputs. She sought feedback and coding help from international forums and open-source resources, got involved with different communities like the London HackSpace, and mastered soldering (“I’ve gotten quite good at it now!”).

You see? We’re never confined unless we choose to be. Although Maria trained in sculpture, she spent most of her time in Madrid performing with friends. “Performance and sculpture were the beginning, but I’ve always been really interested in the multidisciplinary creations.” Even a decade ago in Spain, she directed shows with VJs projecting live feedback. “Even then I didn’t know how to use technology, but I would cut up pieces of technology and use them on my costumes – they weren’t functional at all, but that showed my fascination for it.” When Maria received a grant to study in London, she spent time in Wimbledon working on special effects, through which she learned how to “transform a human into something else.” After starting Kimatica Studios in 2012 and teaming up with long-term collaborator Nestor (creative coder technologist), Maria started a new creative journey with her first body-mapping piece, combining interactive tech, character design, and physical performance. “For me, all of a sudden, I just couldn’t feel inspired by anything else… it was more interesting to create experience than objects.”

Don’t give up on growing. Don’t box yourself in. Allow yourself to experience new mediums. Ask questions. Develop new skills and start a new journey.

2. Let Go of Brand Disillusionment

We get it – big man, big money, big-time scepticism: do commercial commissions make you a sell-out? The answer is simple: no. As a creative, working alongside brands gives you a chance to expand your practice, gain major exposure in huge creative markets, and, let’s be honest, pay your bills and beyond.

Through light-artist-champion Lights of Soho Gallery, family-run champagne brand Cristal (yes, that one) commissioned Aphra to help with a re-branding event. They’d never run a marketing campaign before because, in Aphra’s words, “it sells itself.” Young artists created interactive sculptures for the launch – hers pulsed with a heartbeat that became more excited and dynamic depending on the crowd near it.

Instagram recently commissioned Maria to run a body-mapping video booth in Paris. The advantage of working with brands is that it’s spot-on, beautiful presentation, well-organised, well-paid. “But what I loved is that – in that context, you see people, and their environment was really dry, everyone was just drinking champagne, content. But then people came to our installation and they were laughing and joking and being silly – I really enjoyed bringing that to people. I thought it was quite powerful.” She acknowledged that working with brands is increasingly important to creatives’ evolution – in a best-case scenario, though, they aren’t just commissioning ideas. They’re listening.  “For me the most important thing is that they are coming to us to create very artistic pieces. They are coming to us for what we do – they’re not gonna come to us and ask us to do something boring and lame.”

Of the three panellists, Tim has more vicarious brand experience, freelancing for organisations with connections to big brands like Adidas. At an Adidas product launch last fall, he observed an unexpected interaction with his installation. “The audience we got there was different from any other audience we had… The weirdest part of the event was that there was a DJ on the opposite side of the room, which was kind of interfering at the beginning, but it eventually transformed into something else. Usually it’s a bit more sound-arty but this was more dubstep – there was one guy who managed to find one of the instruments and get a really heavy bass sound out of it, so you’d get this kind of “BBBBBFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFF” sound, and then he had friends around the space, and they were all playing together. What’s crazy is that that was the original concept of the piece – that it’d be this piece where people really connect with each other – that ordinarily only happens in brief moments.”

Whether bringing people together for a photobooth laugh, a product launch, or a weird night of fashion and dubstep, there’s nothing like bringing together through a creative experience. Working with brands isn’t any different – besides, how amazing is it to hear the words, “Here’s a budget. Make what you like. We love your work.”?

3. Trust Your Audience (And, Sometimes, Don’t.)

People are naturally shy – even the most outrageous party animal will go quiet if they’re put into an interactive experience they can’t figure out. Creatives are at constant odds to define and capture an audience – this is especially true for interactive installation artists. How can you engage viewers? What demands their participation and what does not? Each of our panellists offered unique insights into the ins and outs of finding and “activating” an interactive, collaborative audience.

When Tim creates a work, “the main seed is the experience and the concept that creates around it.” The work starts in his head: what will the experience be like for the audience? What feeling will it create? Tim connects warmth and humanness into his work by offering viewers’ agency in their own experience. “The essential thing is that you understand what role you’re asking our participants with an interactive piece to take on, and whether you’re giving them a viewer role or a creative role or whether you’re creating a space where you intend for them to connect with other people.” The question is, how much responsibility are you giving the audience to ensure their participation? In a recent collaboration, Aphra and Tim created an interactive world that shifts based on where your head is. In this case, an audience member is a viewer. “This requires quite a lot of testing because everyone arrives with assumptions – you arrive with assumptions of what this is going to be.” Is it possible to predict their expectations (or your own)? In Movement Alphabet (a piece which depends on people’s movement), Tim expected audience members to move in a way that was true to themselves – but once they stood in front of the installation, everything changed. “They move in a way where they’re trying to control something or figure something out. They don’t move as they would if they were just having a conversation.” Rather than seeing the installation as a failure (or the audience as uncooperative), they widened their understanding of “natural movement” by speaking with people, sans technology, in their own homes.

In her Barbican installation, Maria observed the audience instead of the other way around. “I thought it was a chance to let the audience be the performance. I always like to do a little performance, you know, to activate the piece – so once I did that, I was just observing.” The piece changed depending on participants’ movement, clothing, and distance from each other. “These three different elements played out and changed your results – everyone was just creating their own art piece.” In a Tate Liverpool exhibition, Maria faced the challenge of making an installation clear to viewers when what they saw was only an empty screen (at least, at first). “The installations really looked empty and like nothing was happening unless you get close to it. If [the audience] is not curious, they won’t do it.” The installation, which distorted viewers’ images, evoked an unexpected response: “It was the first time that someone was laughing with our pieces.”

As an artist who works mostly with objects, Aphra’s experience of audience is unique to her craft. “I can always see the finished piece – the way it looks in my head – but they interactive design really takes time.” She tests her work by inviting friends to come and practice. If, for example, her work uses proximity sensors and no one’s there to use them, it’s just a mirrored cube. “It’s only when someone is curious enough to walk up to it that it lights up.” In her more recent work with microphones and sound—reactive pieces, Aphra sees a clearer response: “Straightaway [the audience] notices, ‘Oh, is that my footstep making that noise now? Ah, I’m clapping now, now I’m singing, now I’m running around…”

4. Your Medium Is A Tool, Not A Mandate

Painters do not just paint. Documentary photographers do not just take photographs. Dancers to not just choreograph. Creativity is a wide-ranging quality and industry – how could you limit it to one medium? What we love most about Aphra, Tim, and Maria is their fearlessness in the face of change. Although they use technology, which changes constantly, they are not bound to it. They roll with the changes. This opens them up to new possibilities, new inventions, new inspiration – can a choreographer and creative coder collaborate? Absolutely! Can a light and sound artist build an interactive sculpture and immersive event? They already have.

“I’ve always said that my art practice is focussed in the combination of the ancient knowledge and contemporary mediums like contemporary interactive technology.” Maria shared about the power and magic behind her performances, which involve both interactive technologies and physical performance. “I’ve explored a lot of ancient ceremonies and tribes – we are lacking, in a way, in Western society, those meaningful transcendental experiences – I really want to bring those back. But I couldn’t think to create just with technology – it’s too cold for me. I need humanity.”

Aphra agreed – and described being affected by her grandfather, an abstract modernist painter. “But I feel that, as a society now, we’re so deeply immersed in image that I wanted to create something new, new visual language that stands out and secures the audience’s attention and asks them to become active.” In her work, Aphra fuses natural and inorganic together to reflect society’s glaring contradictions: “Everyone is excited by innovation and progress of technology – I know I am – but I just spent ten days in the south of France on my own, without my phone… I want the idea of returning to the natural and how we can fuse these two things together and bring the natural back into our technological culture.”

5. Make Friends, Think Ahead, and Help Others

The creative industry requires connections, regardless of sector. Interactive art – for obvious reasons – is no different. Each panellist expressed a goal to mentor younger artists, offer guidance, and help others grow in their craft. They recounted their own experiences reaching out to organisations and peers. “If you are a creative and you are interested in these things, then you’re gonna go to things like this, like Meetups, to meet people and meet friends,” said Aphra. “That’s really important, that collaboration and creating your own communities.”

But what constitutes a creative friendship? We often blur the lines between  work and pleasure, collaborators and friends – and Tim warned against it. Really make friends with people – real friends. Collaborate as well, have a network, have all these professional relationships, but… there are so many opportunities that have come my way through friends, and I’ve sort of passed things on to friends, and it’s really to find community that takes you forward in many senses.” Maria agreed and kept her perspective short, sweet, and to the point:

“Connect to people. Talk to others. Collaborate with others. Be open. Follow your instincts.”