CASE STUDIES: MEDIA AND ARCHITECTURE, AND MEDIA FACADES – Hand from Above (2009)

Chris O’Shea – “Hand from Above” (2009)
http://www.chrisoshea.org

*due to some temporary technical problems, I am not able to caption all of the images, so unless otherwise noted, they are credited to Chris O’Shea’s website at http://www.chrisoshea.org/hand-from-above.

This case study will perform a qualitative phenomenological analysis of Chris O’ Shea’s “Hand from Above”, based on video documentation of audience reaction during the screening’s (“Hand from Above”) and also on O’Shea’s description and thoughts about the project in an oral presentation to This Happened NL on March 17, 2011 in Utrecht, Netherlands (This Happened NL). The analysis will engage the conceptual background of the project, while analyzing audience reactions and positing possible implications to O’Shea’s playful approach to artistic engagement. In addition to the video documentation, from which I will draw my own conclusions, I will also utilize online texts, spoken and written by O’Shea, to supplement a contextual understanding of the work.

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“Hand from Above” is a project developed by British artist Chris O’ Shea. On his website, the artist writes that he aims to “use technology to make the unimaginable come to life. Inventing new approaches that explore play, human behaviour and engagement through interaction design and the visual arts” (“About”). Instead of breaking down the conceptual nature of his work, he instead draws on the humanistic vocabulary of social service organizations, stating his Mission, Values and Vision. Describing them, he writes:

Mission: To create installations, digital toys, play spaces and experiences for everyone, that take us out of the everyday and fill us with joy and wonder.

Values: My works aim to:

– be immersive and participatory

– stimulate curiosity, allow us to make believe, explore and discover our imaginations

– encourage creativity and our own confidence in self expression

– let us collaborate with others and to become a performer

– allow us think differently about ourselves and others, challenging our existing perspectives

– get us moving our bodies in unusual ways

– make us smile

Vision: To give these experiences not just to visitors of museums & galleries, but also to the hard to reach, through hospitals, sensory rooms, schools, play centres and public spaces. (“About”)

It is interesting to note that these values revolve more around the experience of an artwork that the content of the art itself. It reaches into alternative spaces and utilizes art as a social tool to create happier, healthier spectators. Although it is difficult to judge what the actual effects of O’Shea’s art might be in terms of longterm happiness or healthiness, it is easy to see the instantaneous reactions of joy, shared connections with others, and playfulness that occur in his video documentation. On looking at his oeuvre of installations listed on his website, many of the recent projects are aimed at children, including several that are situated in educational or hospital environments. The others draw on the same techniques for engagement, but without the child-like aesthetic, for a playful engagement with spectators of (literally) all ages.

The documentation footage from “Hand from Above” shows live closed-circuit footage of public spaces on large public LED screens. Originally developed as a commission by the Foundation for Art & Creative Technology and Liverpool City Council for the BBC Big Screen Liverpool and the Live Sites Network, the installation uses the pre-existing screen and attached cameras from the BBC Big Screens. The image shows live footage of pedestrian traffic in public plazas, which is occasionally modified by a giant digital hand which tickles, squashes, picks up and flicks away the bystanders. Executed by an automated software which selects individuals or groups, the project draws on references voyeurism in a playful manner. Rather than being disturbed by the idea of being watched (as is usual with installations that reference camera monitoring or spying), people are delighted. They dance in front of the screen, waving their arms to draw attention to themselves and laugh as their friends are flicked across the screen. Instead of becoming an authority or watcher, the hand and camera seem anthropomorphized as a silly character, harmless and playful.

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O’Shea is aware of this line that the work treads, speaking at a presentation for This Happened NL in March 2011. Responding to a question from the audience, he states that he’s not interested in the idea of spying. The original concept had involved a camera feed with a small box at the base of the screen, where spectators could stick their own hands in to interact with the feed. O’Shea reacts hesitantly to the literal interaction in the image making, stating that image

people are unpredictable, and that he was worried people would be crude or violent in their play if they were able to control the hand. By making the hand synthetic, it created a sense of control, of safety, which seems necessary to creating an environment of easy playfulness. He also notes that the software seems to “make decisions”, so the work is not about having a real person acting as a voyeur or spy. It is interesting that O’Shea describes the software as “making decisions”, as it reflects my own feeling that the screen and hand were somehow anthropomorphized, but not human. Like a robot or a cute animal, the disembodied hand is safe and without negative intentions, simply because we do not usually associate intentions with them at all. They are embodied in the moment and just act, something which is crucial to the element of play.

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In fact, the work stimulates this embodiment in the spectators as well. As they realize that they are on a live feed, the people in the plaza stare at the screen, smiling and waving. As O’Shea notes in his talk “people like seeing themselves big on a screen”. On watching their reactions in documentations, almost everyone is smiling and laughing, some dance, some jump and many wiggle. The spectators who engage in this play range in age from toddlers to teenagers to adults and even seniors. Something about the giant hand draws people out of their usual routine, stimulating them to play like children regardless of their age and public location. In his talk, O’Shea points out some early influences on the idea of the giant hand – the television show Land of Giants (1968-70), Monty Python, Attack of the 50 Foot Woman (1958), miniature village tourist attractions, and the video game Black and White (2001) where you command the hand of god. All of these pop-culture references come from a real of play and entertainment, and seeing those references in an unexpected setting seem to jar people out of their usual reactions to the space. Answering questions after his talk, O’Shea explains that the reaction to the images was the same in every country that he displayed the work in, from the UK to Tokyo. The main difference he says, was when the project started in Tokyo, the first wave of viewers were business-people on their way to work. In this context, people ignored it, carrying on to their destinations with single-minded purpose. However, later in the day, when the space filled with tourists and shoppers, the reaction changed and the screen was able to engage attention again. Like any act of playfulness, one must be willing to engage with it, therefore it might be possible to assume that people that are participating in luxury time, rather than the structured time of employment, might be more amenable to playfulness.

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Finally, as noted above, the reactions to the project were fairly similar across the range of ages and cultures. As O’Shea observes: “a big hand makes people mostly stick out & wiggle their bottoms”. In the video documentation at Liverpool, a teenage boy sticks his bum towards the screen, laughing over his shoulder and wiggles vigorously before hopping away (00:46). In another, two grown women in costume holding fundraising buckets giggle, point and wiggle at the screen (perhaps discounting the earlier theory that work equals no-play, or perhaps their jobs are already living in a playful zone) (01:27). In the Tokyo footage, a small child tickles back at the screen (00:09) and a girl in her early twenties dances back and forth trying to capture the hand’s attention (00:48). Even spectators that don’t actively participate in the play watch the screen and the wiggling dancers, and smile.

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The act of embodied participation with the video screen is important. Here, the play is not conceptual or virtual (clicking buttons or causing reactions like other interactive art), it is an actual, physical reaction to the stimuli of the screen. It is a reaction that would not otherwise have occurred in such a public space, after all, most (not all though) adults are not given to spontaneously wiggling their bottoms in public squares for no reason. This draws attention to the ways that you would normally act in the space, much like the previous case-study on Urbanscreen’s projected facades draw attention to the architecture by creating an unusual situation. It activates the technology that is already in place around us, without fear or judgement. It simply is. Embodied in the present, and present in the body, it draws spectators out of their thoughtless routine to engage in very human play with themselves, an artificial hand, and with other spectators. It forges temporary connections between all of the real and virtual bodies in the space, and I would argue, creates a positive experience that they will take away from that space. It is also an experience that they did not have to actively seek out in a gallery or museum, but rather engaged with them on their own terms, in the spaces that they use on an everyday basis.

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Works Cited

This Happened NL. “Chris O’Shea talks about Hand From Above”. Vimeo. Vimeo. 28 November 2011. Web. 11 November 2013. <http://vimeo.com/33123941>.

O’Shea, Chris. “About”. Chris O’Shea. Chris O’Shea. N.d., N.p. Web. 11 November 2013. <http://www.chrisoshea.org/hand-from-above>.

—.“Hand From Above”. Chris O’Shea. Chris O’Shea. N.d., N.p. Web. 11 November 2013. <http://www.chrisoshea.org/hand-from-above>.

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