Thursday, April 30, 2009

Transformative Installations - Global perspective

Since the early development work on the Bloorview initiative (called at the time the "Hidden Magician" project), our efforts to develop a whole range of "transformative" or "resonant" installations has moved forward by leaps and bounds into several major initiatives. We are currently active in the development of a major "new generation environment" at Bloorview Kids Rehab that we are calling the "Living Walls Initiative". Within this project, we are developing a highly interactive, one might say "reactive" wall mural that responds to the presence of children with disability in many different ways. Our goal is to change the way the children understand their relationship to their surrounding space.

Children with disability struggle within environments which are highly disabling. Indeed, we call the children "disabled" but we might more usefully call the environments within which they (and we) function disabling environments. As a result, these children often feel like they are a burden on others, that they have to struggle with the environment, that they are what's "wrong". By developing new environments that are much more responsive to a variety of forms and levels of disability, we aim to challenge this understanding, to offer these children an insight into other possible relations they might have to the spaces that surround them and with which they engage.

An early conceptualization of the Living Walls Initiative

The Living Walls initiative is the first major attempt to do this. The overall concept is to develop a large wall mural (we're thinking 8 feet high by 20 feet long) that is made up of motorized elements that will respond, via appropriately designed interfaces, to children with various forms of disability. The mural will depict a scene of relevance to the hospital - a depiction of the ravine that drops away behind the hospital and which has already been incorporated in a number of ways into the design of the hospital building. This allows the children to be attuned to the presence of natural elements in the local environment of the hospital. We are designing into the mural elements which may change color and shape and hence depict the changing seasons. However, the main focus of the mural is to allow the children to interact with the scene and to make interesting changes to it. For example, we are building in animal figures that may hide or emerge at different moments, when the mural senses a child in its proximity. By making some sort of movement, whether using a wheelchair or a gesture, children will be able to change several aspects of the mural - the intensity of water flow in the built-in waterfall, the shape and color of leaves in the trees, the overflight of planes, and so on.

The project is moving from its conceptual design phase into the development of early prototypes that will be used to test the implementation before this is fully fleshed out. At the same time, funds are being sought, both from private donors and funding agencies, in support of the project. Many of the partnerships needed for its success are already in place.

A second "next generation environment" projet also aimed at helping children with disability has been named the "Ado-Matrix Project". This project focuses particularly on the plight of adolescents with disability, who face a situation where they tend to become isolated from their peers and are in a difficult position to build new friendships. To serve their needs, we are developing a tele-gaming environment that "equalizes" player access across different levels of ability, so that a severely handicapped adolescent may play on an equal footing as an able-bodied friend. Our project seeks to create remotely controlled robots that must work together in a common, physically real environment to achieve group goals. Each adolescent will control his or her own robot, an semi-independent webcam and will have access to group chat either through text or voice or a combination of these. Different robots will have different functionality, however. For this project we are still building partnerships and doing conceptual design.

A third installation project on which we are working addresses the issue of climate change and environmental responsibility. Here our aim is to develop an installation that can be taken to the urban public and which will sensitize participants not only to the issues of the environment but do so in a manner that is informed by an awareness of the inequities in urban life and how different elements of the community may learn to find common ground in addressing these issues. The project bears the title "Voices of Transition".