Design Lab Progress

When we first started working on Design Lab, we invited a number of exhibition firms to come in to talk to us about how we might collaborate on this project.  This process helped us to realize that we were not really creating an exhibition space per se, but rather an armature or environment that would support design-based learning activities.  We would not be trying to tell a unified story through the space, but rather inviting visitors to build things, to test them, and to evaluate and share their work.  The predilection of exhibition design firms to design…well…exhibitions made it difficult for us to communicate the nature of the space we were looking to develop.

Through extensive discussions we ended up by engaging an interesting, brilliant, and complicated team of two design firms with very different skill sets.  We are working with Local Projects, a growing shop that has a focus on digital media; and Situ Studios, an artisan shop of architects/builders who pride themselves on building what they design.   We are just ending the concept design phase, and are at a moment of thinking…wow…this is actually coming together.  And the Design Lab team has been so deeply gratified by the success of this unconventional pairing. 

Local Projects was started by Jake Barton, a graduate of the ubiquitous ITP program at NYU.  It first came to prominence with the revolutionary and inspirational StoryCorps kiosks that opened around 9/11, and Local Projects has continued to grow and innovate through projects such as the 9/11 Memorial, the BMW/Guggenheim Lab project, work with digital media in museums, parks, and other public venues.  Increasingly they are being asked to work on experience design more generally, but their core competence is around digital media, interactivity, and story telling.  They have devised some really creative approaches to working with collections in museums as well as a suite of media education tools for the Jacob Burns Media Arts Lab

I first encountered Situ Studios through a group called Solar One, an urban environmental education group that operates Stuyvesant Cove Park on the East River of Manhattan.  I serve on the Solar One Board, and was blown away by a series of installations that Situ did in the park for community environmental arts days.  Apparently I wasn’t the only one, because these installations ended up by being adapted for public arts/environments festivals around the country.  Here are some images of this work

We have reached the end of the concept phase, and the amazing thing is how the two firms are gelling as a team.  The image at the top of this post suggests the kind of integration of digital and physical that we are planning.  Without going into too many administrative details, there was a lot of contract negotiation that went on to delineate the role of each team.  The conceptual design phase was let as one contract with LP in lead and Situ working collaboratively with the LP team.  The design development/cd phase, as we are currently planning it, will be two separate contracts as each firm’s work becomes more specific.  So it will be up to us to integrate.

In the mean time, we have been prototyping activities with the public.  You can see more about this in the Design Lab blog .  This month we had visitors creating and sharing shadow puppets in conjunction with an installation of Design-io’s wonderful Puppet Parade interactive( see Design-io’s blog for more on our work with them).  Its worth mentioning that the combination of Puppet Parade, the traveling exhibition from OMSI called Animation, and our design based activities, we have had record visitorship, with 4,100 people coming on one day, 50% higher than our previous record.

This week, we have been harvesting staff comments from the operations, public programs, education, and development staff on the Design Lab concept documents.  There have been some really valuable and substantive responses.  For those of you reading this who are at NYSCI, please feel free to go into the North Wing Conference Room and look at the drawings and connect with Peggy Monahan or me with any comments and questions. 

For those of you reading this offsite, we will make selections from the concept design phase available online.

Going after the big game

We have been working intensively with Gigantic Mechanic, a NYC based game design firm to create a social game for our Great Hall exhibition on the theme of sustainability.  We have spent a lot of time with dice and cards (my response was to make a game where you build a house out of the cards and dice…) in small groups designing games that we share with each other, then tearing them apart. Once we went into one of our large galleries with a bunch of numbered ping pong balls and created a “Waste Monster” game that had us running back and forth with the balls, trading them, shouting out numbers, trying a “hunter/gatherer” game.

We are trying to create an experience that visitors would come to on a scheduled basis that invites them to play for 20 minutes that would convey some key themes of interdependence, resource trade-offs, collaboration vs competition.  This would all happen in the context of an immersive and responsive environment created by Design-io, who are artists in residence at NYSCI in March-May.  We were drawn to their work through their piece Funky Forest where water flows across the floor, the walls sprout with trees, and who knows what all.  Actually. we have a prototyping session coming up for that immersive environment tomorrow. 

I am really excited by the spark that seems to be kindling between these two very different design firms.  It would be awesome if we could create a large scale immersive 

environment in the Great Hall that responded to visitors and supported the intense interaction that characterizes social games.

That would be a big enough challenge, but we also have to make it so the immersive environment stands on its own.  And we have to make it so the space can be used for other purposes like rentals or Bjork. 

So it is really a huge challenge, but for the first time I am beginning to get a sense of how this might work out. 

The folks from design io and gigantic mechanic have been great, and we have added an awesome new project manager/developer Geralyn Abinader.  She started and ran the digital media program at AMNH for more than a decade, so she is really a huge addition to our team.  Another huge addition in a different way is Leilah Lyons, a PhD computer scientist specializing in embodied interactive experiences.  She is joining us from U Illinois in Chicago.  So there is a lot of new great brain power on this project.

Disability and Culture

Disability and culture

In the course of doing the exhibition Human +, we have worked with people with disabilities and spent a lot of time talking about how we think of disability.  My daughter Lili, a sophomore at Smith College who has CP, is an advisor to the project.  She sent us a link to a paper that is very powerful.  Here is the link

“Disability, then, is the unorthodox made flesh, refusing to be normalized, neutralized, or homogenized. More important, in an era governed by the abstract principle of universal equality, disability signals that the body cannot be universalized. Shaped by history, defined by particularity, and at odds with its environment, disability confounds any notion of a generalizable, stable physical state of being. The cripple before the stairs, the blind person before the printed page, the deaf person before the radio, the amputee before the typewriter, and the dwarf before the counter are all proof that the myriad structures and practices of material, daily life enforce the cultural standard of a universal human being with a narrow range of bodily and mental variation.”