Are you Experienced?
Mouna Andraos designs interactive and experiential art for an adult playground
Stacey DeWolfe - September 25, 2011
The term design has long been associated with the production of objects, tangible things that can be used in the home or at work, items to be worn or sat upon, treasures to be admired—a physical manifestation of an idea or theory or problematic. But for Montreal-based designer Mouna Andraos, a more expansive delineation is required, for in addition to the creation of aesthetically-pleasing and technologically-imaginative and innovative objects, what Andraos really designs is experience.
“The easiest way to define myself,” explains Andraos, “is as an interaction designer, which can mean different things to different people, but for me, means being able to conceive and produce interactions between people, or between people and machines, or between people and objects.” And so, though the material aspects of a work may serve to stimulate a response or guide an action, what resonates is this ephemeral in-between that emerges between object and participant, is a morphing articulation of space.
Take a work like 21 Balançoires, which Andraos and creative partner Melissa Mongiat installed this past May on a small median of land between Place des Arts and the Science Pavillion at the Université du Québec à Montréal—the location of their 2010 Mutek installation, Bloc Jam. Comprised of a series of musically-enabled swings—meaning that each swing was assigned a particular instrument (guitar, vibraphone or piano) and note whose pitch was directly affected by the swinger’s height—the public installation, a collaboration with composer Radwan Moumneh, transformed the heretofore shapeless and transitory space into a destination, a site of creativity, collaboration and community whose design was motivated in part by a desire to see more of a “seeping through” between the worlds of art and science.
To realize this desire, Andraos and Mongiat turned to Luc-Alain Girardea, a professor of biology at UQAM specializing in animal behaviour. “Oddly enough,” laughs Andraos, “we learned quite quickly that there were a lot of things to learn from him about the idea of cooperation between animals: how does it emerge, why does it emerge, and is it even possible at all? We translated some of these ideas in looking at possible cooperation between passersby who don’t know each other… to see if we could come up with a system to encourage them to spend a bit of time, and exchange, to work together and make something a little bigger than what they could do on their own.” And encourage them they did, as the participants quickly discovered that in simply swinging together, whether synchronously or in counterpoint, they were able to create a music that was uniquely and magically theirs.
The decision to incorporate the swings came early on in the research process. “There’s been a tradition in the past few years of artists and activists using the swing as a symbol to reclaim public space,” says Andraos, citing this as one of their major inspirations. But there seems to be something else going on here, and it is this, perhaps, that distinguishes the work of the designer from that of the conceptual artist, an emphasis on function as well as form. In this case, through the use of an explicit signifier. “We knew that the swing would be an easy object for any one to recognize and understand as an interface, so they could just jump in and play along without having to decipher what it was that we were trying to do.”
It was in the late 90s, during her final year of film school, that a growing interest in technology began to pull Andraos away from more traditional cinematic modes of storytelling—the “excitement of being able to participate in the definition of something that was looking forward, that was new… how technology was going to change the way we communicated, how we interacted with each other.” But the industry was moving in another direction. “In the 90s we were made promises of becoming cyborgs that would only live in virtual spaces, which [in the end] was not such a bad thing, because it projected a future that we realized collectively that we didn’t necessarily want to build.” And so, though her post-graduate work with Blue Sponge design studios saw Andraos’ star rise in the field of web design, she decided it was time to take a few steps backward and reconnect with the physical world.
In the mid-aughts, she enrolled in the Interaction Telecommunications Program at New York University, an interdisciplinary think tank of sorts with a focus on working through the language surrounding new technologies and making things—or as Andraos describes it, a “playground for grown-ups.” And it was here that she acquired the hands-on skills that would allow her to bring technology back down to earth, as it were, leading to projects such as: Address, an electronic pendant with a built-in GPS that keeps you anchored to your home, or to the place you want to be; Winter Quilts (2010), a set of traditional quilts interwoven with e-textiles that can sense and respond to the environment in which they are installed, and the Power Cart (2007), a mobile station where folks could chat while recharging their electronic devices.
For Andraos, who was never “super excited” about the artificiality of the gallery space, getting the work out into the public domain was always on the agenda. And while the performative aspects of operating the Power Cart took the artist somewhat by surprise, the project stands as a sort of ur-text for the work that has followed: “as an object in public space, as an object that has a little bit of that DIYness, and has also been designed with the intention of sharing the knowledge and expertise associated around that.”
Last fall, Andraos and Mongiat—who along with partner Kelsey Snook have formed a company called Living With Our Time—received the prestigious Phyllis Lambert Design Montréal Grant, which enabled them to travel to Berlin and take part in the city’s Open Design lab. One of the goals of this month abroad was to look at the idea of producing public works on a smaller scale, “ad hoc types of things” that could be built and installed as a means to both engage the public and inspire similar actions. As Andraos explains, “the research we did in Berlin was to think about this idea of open design: how do we design for integrating the participation aspect, not only in the final product, but in the creation process? How do we engage a certain audience in thinking about what the project might become? How can a project enable participation afterwards if it’s open for anyone to use, modify, reinvent, upgrade?”
“The Radio of Songs from People’s Heads” (2011) was one of the outcomes of this research period, a series of cardboard capsules where people could free themselves from their pesky earworms—those irritatingly catchy tunes that loop endlessly in our minds—by recording a version of the song and having it made available as part of an online audio library. Further to their goals, the partners are currently in the process of publishing the full instructions on how the “radio” works and how its parts can be deconstructed and reused: “an invitation for anyone to build on a similar system, and from there, to develop a methodology that can be applied to different projects as well.”
This summer sees the company working in a variety of modes, reinterpreting the teapot for a group show about the rituals of tea at London’s Victoria and Albert Museum, constructing an interactive projection for the Surrey Art Gallery on the 100th anniversary of Marshall McLuhan’s death, and designing a “turluting” machine for an homage to La Bolduc, the beloved 1930s Quebec folksinger who specialized in what is known as turlutage, a unique style of non-lyrical vocalizing that sits somewhere between scatting and yodelling. And then there is the “Giant Sing-Along.” Commissioned by a Minnesotan organization called Northern Lights—evidence of the far-reaching popularity of the partner’s work—this public installation for the Minnesota State Agricultural Fair is, like many of their projects, musical in nature. “Music is magical,” shrugs Andraos. “When we are trying to create projects that work both in the day and at night, then anything that is more lights or video or images becomes a little more problematic… so music often serves the objective we’re trying to create and has been fun to discover and play with.”
Here, a knowledge of the popularity of the sing-along in Minnesotan culture, and an affection for musical Americana, inspired the partners’ approach. Over the course of the last few months, participants have been invited to submit their favorite songs online, 50 of which will be chosen and played back, karoake style, for the public sing-along. But fundamentally, as with much of Andraos’ work, what really drives the project is a desire to build community, and to design an experience where people can spend time together and see what is created as a result of this collaborative energy.
But though this expansive, socially-minded thinking has come to characterize the work of Living With Our Time, the tinkerer inside Andraos lives on. “I have always been interested in trying to make a more formal intervention inside the world of products,” says Andraos, “but that leap between making a first-off product or object and being able to produce what will actually go into the hands of users, and consumers, at a normal scale, is quite difficult when looking at technology.” And so for now, to keep a balance with the company’s large-scale commissions, Andraos continues to work on self-generated projects, as part of this ongoing research, and as a source of learning and inspiration.
Stacey DeWolfe is a freelance writer and filmmaker living in Montreal. She has written for C Magazine and is an arts writer for the Montreal Mirror and Akimbo. She is also the author of Sound Affects: Sado-Masochism and Sensation in Lars von Trier’s Breaking the Waves and Dancer in the Dark