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Lian Loke, Kirsten Sadler, prototyping Bystander Lian Loke, Kirsten Sadler, prototyping Bystander
photo Toni Robertson

This article is based on interviews with artists and curators involved in prototyping interactive art and a reflection on my own work with Beta_space: a dedicated public prototyping environment.

All artforms have their particular ways of being unfinished: rough cuts, maquettes and works-in-progress. These act as proof of concept and invite feedback. The prototype has been imported into interactive art from its origins in engineering via the interdisciplinary field of interaction design. It refers to an original, functioning model which might be hi or lo-fi, and which might represent component aspects of an art-work or a full mocked-up version. The growing use of prototyping in the field of interactive art reflects the need for artists to learn from design methodologies that deal specifically with the problems of human interaction with complex computer systems.

Lian Loke and Toni Robertson are experts in the fields of software engineering and interaction design. They are also artists with practices in performance art and print-making respectively. In 2004-5 they worked with Ross Gibson and Kate Richards on the design of the interactive art-system Bystander, which included several prototyping sessions involving members of the project team and invited participants.

Toni describes prototyping as part of an iterative process of “bringing into being”, through visualisation:

Prototyping is a way of being able to see and reflect on some aspect of an unmade work as part of its making. It’s a way of seeing things that do not yet exist in order to get them to exist.

Toni points out that many artistic processes are iterative in this way and use “interim representations” to reach their final product. In interactive art, however, these representations are the only way that makers can work with the amorphous and uncontrollable aspect of human use. To create a system that effectively responds to this unpredictable material frequent tests are required to challenge the creators’ assumptions about what people might do, as Lian describes:

In interactive works like Bystander, artists are...experimenting with the way people make meaning and with trying not to direct that...Because of the scale of Bystander there were lots of mockups and evolving prototypes along the way...lots of assumptions got challenged—like how people would behave in the space and react to the material.

The level of involvement of the public in prototyping however is controversial. Kate Richards has a long history of using prototyping as a producer of multimedia projects and in her own creative practice. She prototyped her most recent work, Wayfarer (with Martyn Coutts), to an invited group of colleagues during a Performance Space residency in September. She warns that while prototyping is essential it requires careful use:

What’s important is for artists to ask “what are the appropriate tools [from interaction design] and when to use them?” It can be a problem for artists to be too audience focused. Interactive art has to function, so you’d be crazy not to use these tools...but the tools can’t drive the work. The artist has a vision and they have to create the thing and it’s not going to work for everyone.

How can we use prototyping to open up the creative process and include the audience whilst understanding and avoiding the risks? This question is being addressed in the Beta_space initiative—a partnership between the Powerhouse Museum and the Creativity and Cognition Studios at the University of Technology, Sydney. Beta_space is an experimental exhibition venue in the Powerhouse where artists can develop interactive artworks through feedback and collaboration with an audience.

Involving people in public exhibition settings in the process of prototyping can provide valuable benefits. In terms of technical refinement the demands of public exhibition and public use cannot be recreated in controlled environments. For artists the responses of a diverse audience to a prototype can be incredibly rich and revealing. On the other, hand opening up the creative process takes a lot of courage. It is hard psychologically to leave something ‘unfinished’, open to judgment before it is ready to stand alone. Matthew Connell, Curator of Computing and Mathematics at the Powerhouse, and a driving force behind Beta_space, points out that this can also be uncomfortable for the audience. Showing work-in-progress demystifies the normally closed practice of making and challenges the audience’s notions of how to respond to artworks in a museum as complete expressions of an artist’s intentions.

The first part of the solution to these problems is the way the prototype is presented to the audience. A prototype should not be presented as an ‘unfinished thing’, but as part of an ongoing process of dialogue between artist and audience. The prototype is a way of stimulating and grounding imagination. It offers a tangible, shared experience which can be the basis of discussion. It is important to manage and support dialogue between audience and artist by framing the prototype this way and providing structured opportunities for audiences to contribute to the discussion.

The second part of the solution is in supporting the artists. George Khut experimented with prototyping his work Cardiomorphologies during a Performance Space Residency and at Beta_space. (For a vivid description of the finished work, see Tim Atack’s “Cyborg Dancing”, RT72) Khut describes the experience as “a luxury”, to have the opportunity to “take myself out of my own given point of view and see the work differently.” But for him the question was: “How do you derive meaning from this cacophony of voices?” At Beta_space we concentrate on helping artists to meet the audience half-way by articulating the function of the prototype as a part of a trajectory of developing practice. We work with artists to help them clearly express the experiential objectives they are working towards and their aims for the prototype exhibition.

In the case of Cardiomorphologies, there were two key aspects to the audience experience that Khut was trying to create: firstly a sense of integrated physical and mental engagement with the work and secondly a reflective state in which participants consider correlations between thoughts and specific physiological states. For the prototyping process we established a set of affective aims at the outset which articulated these experiential goals as clearly as possible, such as “sensual and kinaesthetic”, “close fitting”, “explorative/curious” and “enabling.”

During the prototyping sessions, audiences described responses that showed how aspects of the visual and sonic design were generating the visceral experiences Khut was interested in. One of the participants said, "At this point...I'm all engaged by the circles...I think they're amazing and I was trying to experiment with my own breathing to see how much of the shape I can sustain ...I'm trying to create something with my breathing here. It's a very joyful experience." On the other hand, collaborative work with audiences in workshop environments showed that some of the more reflective aspects Khut was working towards were not materialising in the work. Unexpectedly we found that the format of the prototyping sessions, in which audiences described their experiences in great detail, either alone or in groups, actually contributed in itself to achieving this "reflective state." This led to a reassessment of the experiential goals for the work, and also of the means to achieve them.

Seen this way prototyping can be approached as more than just a design tool, but as a form of creative practice. Khut reflects on the impact the process has had on his work:

I am considering how these [processes] might constitute a form of relational or dialogical practice in their own right, developing the idea of the gallery as a place where people can explore and extend their abilities to imagine and relate aspects of their experience and being in interesting ways.

The implications of this approach to public prototyping also reach to the heart of curatorial practice. Prototypes are situated somewhere in the provocative middle-ground between objects and experiences. As museums and galleries make the transition from an object-based to an experienced-based culture, public prototyping can itself be considered as a prototype for a new way of conceptualising their role as cultural institutions. For Matthew Connell Beta_space is itself a test-case, a forerunner of what he describes as “a vision of a new kind of museum space that is all about process, experiment and collaboration.”

Thanks to Matthew Connell, George Khut, Lian Loke, Kate Richards and Toni Robertson for their contributions to this article. If you are interested in showing a prototype in Beta_space please visit

RealTime issue #76 Dec-Jan 2006 pg. 24

© Lizzie Muller; for permission to reproduce apply to [email protected]

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