Children absorb new technology in the blink of an eye. Occasionally, everyone stumbles upon a jaw-dropping sight of a two-year-old snatching and grasping instantly the basic functionality of someone’s phone or tablet. New technology is the new playground. A child’s sandbox has been replaced with apps.
The exhibition of new media art aimed at the youngest audience of WRO Art Center allows them to engage directly with the works of art on display. The event with a decade-long tradition has been modified and enriched gradually by the Wrocław-based institution.
I’ve recently had the chance to meet with the team behind the project – Piotr Krajewski and Paweł Janicki – in their new media art centre in Wrocław. We discussed the original idea, its evolution and their plans for the future. My own enjoyable visit to the interactive playground convinced me that the space has plenty of delights to offer for every adult’s inner child.
Dobromiła Błaszczyk: Ten years ago, you opened the WRO Art Center with this project. Interactive Playground, which defied convention, seemed just to baffle everyone…meanwhile, the project is still going strong, and this year you unveiled its tenth edition.
Paweł Janicki: From the very beginning, we intended to stage the exhibition dedicated to children or at least to include children’s section in the programme. We saw this enormous empty space just waiting to be filled to the brim. Around that time, we came across the graduate art project by Dominika Sobolewska and Patrycja Master, so we decided to join forces. As it turns out, their creativity and our experience were indeed a winning combination. Rarely does a worthy initiative stem from a single person’s mind. What you need is a diverse collection of personalities that can bounce ideas off each other.
DB: Institutions of culture that open their “gates” to the public prefer to stage exhibitions that revolve around some influential artist or buzzword. The opening show makes a clear statement and represents the direction the institution is going to take, doesn’t it?
Piotr Krajewski: Solo shows of two iconic artists – Nam Jun Paik and Mirosław Bałka – ran concurrently to Interactive Playground. A posthumous exhibit of Paik’s works curated by his assistant, Jochen Saueracker, which for some reason proved to be quite a challenge, received the highest accolades and was for instance recommended by the Wall Street Journal…so I believe the powerful resonance of the series of corresponding exhibitions we opened in the very first year of WRO Art Center’s activity made a clear enough statement.
PJ: Besides, Interactive Playground was completely different when it premiered during WRO Art Center’s big opening.
DB: In what way?
PJ: The exhibition’s design was determined by the set of particular circumstances we found ourselves in at that time, meaning secondary importance of our gallery’s education programme. When we announced the opening of our new venue with the exhibition targeted specifically at children, some people argued that it was so silly that no one would take us seriously afterwards. In fact, the risk has paid off. Since then, the project has been transformed and developed even further. What is more, it has travelled around the country and the entire world.
DB: You disassociate yourselves from the retrospective and commemorative undertones of the 10th edition of the project. Are you already preparing to launch its next stage?
PJ: We’re preparing to conquer Kiev in the fall.
PK: Interactive Playground has clear foundations we agreed upon at the outset. Every year, we draw upon the experiences we gathered during the previous edition. The initial Interactive Playground opened in Wrocław, then Zachęta in Warsaw, Johannesburg, Garage in Moscow, Bombay, Edinburgh, Aarhus and finally Ghent. Its total audience has reached over 300,000 viewers. The so-called Art Mediators are also paramount to one’s experience of the exhibit. Therefore, we had to make our know-how available to other institutions by for instance tutoring staff members of the education department in Zachęta- National Gallery of Art. At some point, we started producing customized versions of the artworks in the native language of a given country, such as Danish or Ukrainian. Interactive Playground embodies a variety of artistic strategies and sensibilities. And thus, Patrycja and Dominika’s art project is the completed piece ready to be packed and shipped someplace else. On the other hand, Paweł’s work is never finished. His painting with light opened up the possibility of a networked event that involved children in Johannesburg and Wrocław painting simultaneously and building a bridge of sorts between the two locations.
DB: It sounds to me as if you’d adopted a site-specific approach to the presentation.
PJ: Sure, you could say that. Every space enhances and breathes new life into our vibrant display, which is perfectly illustrated by this year’s edition curated by Magdalena Kreis who decided to limit the colour palette to black and white only. It’s obviously an extremely unorthodox concept if your intention is to connect with children. Nonetheless, if you delve deep into the physiological aspects of the ways of seeing, you are bound to discover that children’s colour perception is very limited. As adults, we are perfectly aware of the nuances, associations and stereotypes carried by different hues. Bright and colourful design of exhibitions for children panders to the adults’ prevailing opinion. We distanced ourselves from that tradition. On the other hand, since less is actually more, we opted for fewer objects on display in favour of quality and basic form. Interactive Playground was stripped of colour. Art installations’ internal mechanisms allow for their seamless transition into the virtual reality and can be accessed through your browser. Some works, which have been presented so far to the public, could be activated with the user’s smartphone, others were just your typical art objects, including “Dog” by Zbigniew Kupisz. To be fair, it was made in 1991, and digital tools were still far from ubiquitous.
DB: Your project could be fully appreciated by a wide audience. Adults could also enjoy interacting with the objects.
PJ: Kids never come by the art gallery on their own.
DB: Children are widely underestimated in the art world. Their involvement usually boils down to the forced participation in some workshops focusing on the main theme of the show. Whereas, you insist on taking them seriously as full-fledged members of your target audience.
PJ: This sort of events are bogged down by misjudged propaedeutic or in other words the organizers’ conviction that children must learn something from the exhibit. Our interactive art project is governed by a different scale, height and arrangement of the works so that our viewers can move freely from one object to the next. Every component of the exhibition is tailored to the needs of our youngest audience.
DB: As opposed to the previous editions, your works of art seem to dominate this year’s Interactive Playground.
PJ: Definitely, and yet the exhibit features several artworks I contributed nothing or very little to. The reasons behind this are manifold. First of all, preparation of this kind of art show – incorporating, in this case, three separate groups of installations – takes a couple of years, not months or days. Secondly, art installations underwent multiple alterations during or after my workshops with students, usually those enrolled in the interactive media and performance course at the university in Poznań (I collaborate with on a regular basis). In order to teach adults (not children), I made a series of interactive art objects that represent a certain theory or work of contemporary art, e.g. video feedback, cellular automation, additive colour, ASCII art, the Polish formism, Calder’s mobiles etc. Suddenly, we realized that, if slightly processed, this particular collection could fit perfectly into the subject of this year’s Interactive Playground.
DB: You still placed an informative placard right by the entrance outlining the inspiration behind every piece that mentions cult figures, works of art and true milestones in the history of new media art of the ‘50s and ‘60s. Is the educational aspect there only to complement the experience?
PJ: The explanatory descriptions are aimed at adults. Children can engage with art; adults can learn something, you see the irony?
DB: The installation placed on the mezzanine floor was created during workshops for children, right?
PJ: Magdalena Kreis and I ran some workshops revolving around the notion of sound, intuitive sheet music’s reading, as well as the auditory response to the visual form. Children made “pictures” (visual objects) and recorded sound that I subsequently digitalized. This particular art installation uses sound deriving from the music score composed on the basis of images produced by children. Together, we succeeded in creating something unique.
DB: It’s also worth mentioning that every visitor can influence the music score in question by rearranging or covering the pictures with their own body, altering somehow the camera sensors’ reading.
PJ: Sensors respond to a variety of factors, such as distance, angle and shadow cast by someone’s figure.
PK: Everyone can join in, that’s the point. We definitely have learned a lot since we landed on ‘Interaction’ as the main organizing principle of the project. Children don’t come in unattended to these sorts of events. Initially, we overlooked the parents or grandparents who otherwise, wouldn’t even have bothered to attend the new media otherwise. There’s an enormous potential we can tap into as far as the guardians watching their loved ones enjoying themselves are concerned. They can let their imagination run wild and finally understand that art is not as inaccessible as they might think.
PJ: When you’re dealing with the youngest members of your audience, you can’t simply resort to the conventional use of technology. Ready-made solutions always fall short of their expectations. Careful scrutiny of each object’s functions reveals its alternative purpose. The most tacky things imaginable (e.g. this year’s shining toys) can be incorporated into the fascinating interface that gives rise to something new.
DB: Besides the auditory and visual installations, it is the light that shapes/allows you to shape the artworks’ reception.
PJ: Light, or a lack thereof, is of great importance to the exhibit. On the other hand, never before had we faced the challenge of working with a pitch-black space. Darkness gave us a valuable lesson. Some children had to combat their own fears. However, the playful atmosphere and the light emitted by the controllers and art installations helped them grow accustomed to the dark surroundings quite easily.
DB: Did working on the exhibition aimed at children require you to take into account different factors?
PK: We’ve always been flexible when it comes to satisfying the needs of diverse audience groups, children notwithstanding. Once, we had a pleasure of guiding some autistic children with their caretakers through the exhibition. Their guardians were really surprised by the children’s great response to the objects. Afterwards, we hosted the meeting with them to exchange views about a deep impression the exhibit has left upon those children. What is more, the first edition of Interactive Playground was attended by a number of children suffering from the nervous system disorders who made us realize they’re just different, not disabled. At that moment, we looked at the works of art through their eyes and discovered the underlying meanings they could access. Additionally, children’s behaviour in the art gallery gave their guardians and us a profound insight into their personality traits – some of them stuck closely together, others were eager to engage with the objects, while the iconoclasts preferred watching things from a distance.
PJ: Workshops can assume different forms depending on their participants. Some people are better off alone; others need encouragement, stimulus or an explanation to start interacting with art.
PK: This year, we showcased the installation reminiscent of a chessboard that featured black posts, or “stations” if your will. The idea was to guide children along the route on the map which was projected on the ground by the equipment mounted above the stations, which then produced sound. You had to follow the instructions. During workshops based on the installation children were actually thrilled to perform the activities, which reminded us of military drills…we watched them and quipped that we should pitch the idea to the Polish armed forces. The result is fascinating if you consider the current reverence for freedom and independence. Swimming against the tide can reap surprising benefits when you work with children.
PJ: Children are largely oblivious to the stark divide between the virtual and physical reality. Digital natives deem the virtual as a natural, obvious even, form of expression. Whereas, for adults, the juxtaposition between the two worlds is still palpable.
DB: Your project demonstrates that the cultural education knows no age limit. If we wish to nurture visual sensibility in children, we not only need to start early from the basics but also steer clear from an infantile and patronizing tone. Every young viewer must realize that they are surrounded by technology. New media are now essential to our everyday life.
PJ: We’ve lately been approached by some people whose exhilarating visit to the first Interactive Playground inspired them to pursue those interests and apply to an art school later on. I can’t stress this enough; we don’t even have a separate education department at WRO Art Center. Our programme and manifold activities designed for a wide audience manage to speak for themselves.