What in the World are Public Interactives?


See that big silver coffee bean in the middle of the picture of Chicago?  That’s a public interactive.  It’s in public and it’s purpose is to engage the public.  Some might just classify it as art, but there’s more to it than a painting on a wall.  It was designed specifically for a public space and you’re supposed to do more than look at it.  You’re supposed to walk under it, look at yourself in it, observe how your reflection changes depending on where you stand and then post a picture of yourself on social media.  Well, I added that last part, because social media wasn’t really a factor when the piece was installed, but now that selfie is as much a part of the experience as the Chicago skyline.

“Designing Culture: Reading Walls, World Expos, and Digital Memorials”

Communication is my thing, so when my alma mater, University of Texas at Dallas, invited me to a free lecture with Dr. Anne Balsamo an “emerging media expert,” why would I stay home?  I wasn’t sure what public interactives were, but I figured I needed to know.

Dr. Balsamo, is one of those academic types who get paid by large think tanks to do really cool stuff the rest of us would love to do, except we have real jobs.  What kinds of stuff?  Well, she got to make a bigger than life computer dog, for instance – as a part of an exhibit which was built to explore how the public interacted with various types of media.  The result of that study can be found at your local museum.  Which museums you might ask?  Well, there’s several interactive reading walls I can think of off the top of my head:  the musical exhibit the DMA has in conjunction with the Vermeer exhibit, the entry section over at the George W. Bush Presidential Center at SMU and the Expanding Universe Exhibit at the Perot.  Not that Dr. Balsamo was directly involved in any of those museums or exhibits, but she’s part of the buzz in that world.

A Slow Start to a Fascinating World

By the end of Dr. Balsamo’s discussion I was on the edge of my seat taking copious notes on my phone, but when things began, I thought I might have made a mistake.  My husband cut his trading day short to join me at the lecture.  At first, some professorial sort got up to introduce the speaker and the mono-tonal recital of alphabet soup almost put us both to sleep.  Dr. Balsamo didn’t do much better as she laid the foundation for her presentation.  I was actually wondering how awful it would be to sneak out when she started talking about the exhibit with the giant robot dog.

Bill gave me a look that pleaded for an exit, but I waved him off.  I knew this wasn’t his cup of tea, but I began to realize it was mine.  I should have felt guilty, but I’ve sat through innumerable lectures about investing and trading, which caused my eyes to glaze over quicker than you can quote the Nikkei average.  It was his turn to be a little lost.

The Question of Sponsorship, The Aid’s Quilt and Pages

If you’re at all interested in the subject of “public interactives,” you’ll be glad to know that if you google it there will be 604,000 results, so you can really dig into it.  It’s certainly a fascinating subject and I’ve been interested in it since that day in the Charles de Gaulle  airport when I saw ads flickering on a sign above the escalator instead of helpful directions.  That was back in the seventies and it was the beginning of something new in advertising, but like the advertisers on the airport’s innovative sign, the subject of sponsorship is at the bottom of the whole question of public interactives.  Dr. Balsamo raised the question in conjunction with a world fair presentation, but it’s an old question.

Think back to the Renaissance.  Where would we be today if Leonardo di Vinci hadn’t caught the attention of the Medicis or the Pope hadn’t tapped into the genius of Michelangelo?  I’m sure there were all kinds of brilliant guys back then who never made it out of their home village.  There were only a handful of people back in those days with the means to support the arts in a big way.  What about today?  Different millennium, same problem.

When something is for public consumption (or interaction) who’s supposed to pay for it?  If you want the public to pay, you have to put up a ticket booth and charge admission, which sort of defeats the purpose of public interactives.  The whole idea is to catch people unaware for casual collective collaboration.  The government could pay for it, but then we’d get into a whole different discussion about mind control and undue coercion.  That leaves patronage and sponsorship.  In a day when every major venue is named after its sponsor and even the chairs of museums and universities have a sponsor’s name tagged onto their title, sponsorship gets tricky and leads down the road to over-commercialization and even censorship.

I don’t have answers to the questions raised by Dr. Anne Balsamo, but a quick read of the Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 should get you to asking questions, also.

Sponsorship aside, Dr. Balsamo offered the Aid’s Quilt as an example of various forms of public interaction.  In 1987, the first time the Aid’s Quilt was exhibited to the public, there were 1920 panels.  It was displayed on the Washington D.C. Mall near Washington Monument By 1996 there were 40,000 panels and the number continues to increase geometrically, even though the disease itself is losing its ability to kill so effectively.  The quilt is so large now that the only way to exhibit it in it’s entirety, in a way that allows for public interaction, is to reproduce it digitally – a virtual quilt.  While you can still have the quilt displayed in your community, all you’ll get is a 12 foot section.

Since the project was first announced, it was designed for interactivity.  The panels were produced by members of the public.  It was viewed and reacted to by members of the public.  Due to public interaction, the quilt continues to grow.  Due to demands for access it was digitized and is still shown publicly, albeit in part, never the whole.  And people are still interacting – even digitally.  You can get an app.  You can follow it on Twitter.  You can leave your comments online.

Dr. Balsamo ended with the wistful recognition of the fact that in spite of all this hoopla about public interaction, there is one very old form of public interaction that is still the most enduring and reliable: the printed word.  In other words a book, as in hard copy.

When that exhibit with the giant computerized dog was made it had a big footprint.  Along with the exhibit itself, there was a blog, a video, maps, walls and a DVD.  The exhibit itself was scrapped.  Technology has moved on, so the video and DVD are no longer operable in today’s equipment. The digital footprint disappeared.  You’ll need a book to experience it.  That makes me very proud to be a writer.

Published by Jane Sadek

Poet and storyteller. Wife and friend. Traveler and caretaker. Woman of faith.

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