Moments of Awe

Lessons at INST-INT 2014 from a new artist to himself

Somehow I managed to make it out to Minneapolis this past weekend for an amazing collection of speakers who dominate the interactive installation landscape. INST-INT 2014 was a barrage of beautiful works and the incredible people behind them. What follows are some lessons that I think I should learn from these talented and generous people.


Kyle McDonald specifically nailed this point down as a call to action. He mentioned his work with Golan Levin and the importance of his mentorship. He challenged folks like me to find someone who produces the work that inspires you and learn from them. That’s an important part of creative success.

Each of the artists took time to mention their mentors and collaborators.

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Paint Torch by Claes Oldenberg and Jen Lewin in Philadelphia. photo by Lulu Hoeller

Jen Lewin offered the poignant tale of her installation with Claes Oldenburg, one of her idols. Together, they made a giant illuminated paintbrush in downtown Philadelphia. Sometimes you need a mentor to say, “chill out, we need to make it simpler.”

Dan Goods told how he won his first real installation project when his mentor, Ned Kahn, was too busy to take it on. That turned into the amazing eCLOUD.

Mentors can also be virtual, as Joel Gethin Lewis reminded us. He opened with a beatiful quote from Alan Moore, author of Watchmen and V For Vendetta, about how philosophy might be an alternative geography. There might be an “Island of Marxism.” Sure, it’s wonderful to have somebody literally helping to put your piece together and pointing out potential pitfalls, but you can always draw inspiration from the greats through their writing.


Documentation seemed to be a common lesson that every artist learned early on, albeit the hard way. Yael Braha began her talk by showing one of her pieces for the Oakland Botanical Gardens called Treebook, illuminated handing books. As she apologized for the poor quality pictures, she casually mentioned that they had moved up and down! So cool, but she lamented that we’ll never get to see the full thing without a video. Clearly it wasn’t a stumbling block, as she just put on a piece that used the UN buildings as a canvas. But try not to copy her mistake.

Daniel Leithinger told us the harrowing tale of John Maeda accidentally leaking a video of one of his latest works. Suddenly, the black hole of the internet sucked it in and exploded it, without ever mentioning Daniel or his collaborators. So, he made a slick video, contacted the trendiest of design/tech blogs and managed to stake ownership. It worked…this time. Kyle McDonald also warned, if you’re making a budget for client work, be sure to include any documentation costs for everyone’s benefit.

You made a cool thing, everybody should see it and know who was involved.

Sputniko got me into thinking how the presentation of the piece is part of the work itself. Much like a band meticulously designs their album cover (unless they are U2), each piece should have a name, a brand, and a tone. Sputniko actually presents each of her pieces by creating a music video to tell the story. She therefore completely controls the experience and story of the piece. In our age, not everyone can experience your piece first hand, so be mindful of that outer layer of audience as well.


Many of the presenters included specific calls for collaboration. A spectrum from Jen Lewin’s “Does anybody know how to handle power fluctuations in Portugal?” to Janet Echelman’s call for conceptual collaboration for her upcoming project in Boston.

None of the artists showed solo projects.

Sosolimited made a point to pause on a slide depicting every person involved on each project, even when they were running out of time. The illustrious Klaus Obermaier did the same thing. Everyone needs help. I need help. Go find help.

Ideas before Tools

Each of the speakers began with their analog creative process. Whether that was a sentence “We’re gonna turn the London Eye into a giant mood ring” (Sosolimited), a semi-universally experienced pain of mentruation (Sputniko), or the paper prototypes of Oblong’s super complex Minority Report rooms.

Now, I love new shiny tools. I like to set them up, play around with them, and then see what I can do. Certainly this can be useful for creative exercises or augmenting your capabilities. But the best, most moving works started with an idea, a want, a need to express. Only then did they figure out how (and if) it would be possible.

That’s partly because things change. Tools change and improve, like the operating systems of Keeli Shaw’s giant walls. Client requirements change, like when the sophisticated display of Sosolimited’s Energy of the Nation was moved out onto a barge where no one could see it. And the way people will use it change, as Minimaforms showed us in their with the varying interactions with Petting Zoo.

You are an artist. Technology is just your medium. Your job is to move, to inspire and to incite marvel. As a technological artist, you aspire to create that “Moment of Awe”, as Dan Goods so eloquently put it. That goal should be the first thing you write down when beginning a piece and last thought imprinted on the minds of the visitors as they leave.

All in all I came home from INST-INT feeling refreshed and inspired. New York can take it out of you sometimes, and a breath of fresh Minnesotan air was just what the doctor ordered. For a few days, I was surrounded by all the unbelievably friendly folks who make the things I drool over every day, and got to see into their process and soul a little bit. Thanks to all the speakers and organizers for a great experience and a great weekend!

Charlton Roberts is a poetic technologist living in New York. He has produced virtual and physical installations for Off-Broadway theatres, non-profit organizations, and his own shits and giggles. He currently works as a Creative Technologist for TBWA\Worldwide and runs the blog Poetech, where he tries to write about pieces that inspire him.

@charltoons :: :: @poetechBlog ::

Senior Creative Developer, Squarespace

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