The Power of Play
digiPlaySpace co-curator Matt Nish-Lapidus takes us behind the scenes of Toronto’s interactive playground
Every February, digiPlaySpace delights kids and adults alike with innovative installations that combine art, science, technology, and entertainment. This year’s edition features 23 works from eight countries that use robotics and algorithms to create unique, interactive environments. We spoke with our new digiPlaySpace curator Matt Nish-Lapidus to get the inside scoop on this wildly popular annual exhibition.
What do you think it is about digiPlaySpace that makes it one of TIFF’s most popular events?
Matt Nish-Lapidus: Technology is an inextricable part of everyday life, from work to play to entertainment. Screens have become ubiquitous in the lives of people of all ages and enable new forms of individual play, including complex problem solving and narrative development. There’s also a lot of technology that exists in the background, and we engage with it without considering what it is, how it works, or where it is going.
digiPlaySpace brings those things to the surface, putting people face to face with the creative potential of technology and letting them get hands-on with types of technology that they don't usually use. People spend a lot of time in front of screens, so we try to balance that with experiences that amplify the playful potential of new and emerging technologies. Plus, it's really, really fun!
This year’s theme is “Creative Machines.” How did you conceive of this theme?
MNL: Humans have been exploring the question of computer and machine creativity for a long time. The nature of machine "minds" has been the focus of science fiction, philosophy, and art since the early days of the Industrial Revolution in the 18th and 19th centuries; later, artists like Andy Warhol explored the idea of a “factory” for creativity and as technology advanced, Canadian artists like Norman White, David Rokeby, and Steve Mann questioned our relationship with increasingly technological surroundings to make computers and industrial objects more human and playful. These investigations are as much about the nature of creativity and automation as they are about questioning the role of artistic authorship. If you create a robot and that robot paints a picture, who is the artist? And, to complicate things further, if you collaborate with the machine to create the picture, what is the nature of that expression?
At digiPlaySpace this year, we have a number of exhibits that explore the nature of machine creativity, or how we can collaborate with complex systems to create new types of artistic expressions. These range from simple drawing machines to a complex artificial intelligence that visitors can interact with to explore their own behaviour. These seem like heavy ideas, but by focusing on fun and play, we can dive into these questions in engaging ways.
How do you think interactivity and notions of play have evolved in the 21st century?
MNL: There are a few key areas that I'm really interested in. One is the way that we can now play against or collaborate with machines: rather than the typical way of engaging with a single-player game, like a videogame, we see more and more toys and games that function as a second player. They have some level of intelligence that creates challenge or even unexpected results. This isn't specific to games, either: open-ended play with toys can also have more responsiveness and feedback, resulting in the play becoming more dynamic. This is happening both on devices and with physical toys. The other area I find really interesting is how technology can enable distributed and asynchronous play across long distances. Friends in different parts of the world can play directly with each other through videogames, and now in mixed reality spaces through VR and AR. Games like Pokémon Go and Super Mario Run let people play with and against each other from great distances, even if they are playing at different times.
What is your selection criteria and process? Do you develop the theme first and then select the works, or vice versa?
MNL: The selection begins as a very organic process. We look at artists and other festivals we've been following, in addition to going through recommendations and submissions. At this point, there's no predetermined theme. Once we have a long list of pieces or people that we'd like to explore further, I start to look for emergent themes and patterns. Are there multiple pieces dealing with the same ideas, or that are related in some way? We then look at each piece based on its artistic vision, playfulness, accessibility for our audience, and appropriateness for the space. When a shortlist is compiled, the overall theme becomes more clear. It’s more about letting the work speak to us, and looking forward to see where technology, art, and play are moving.
What parallels do you see between the digiPlaySpace installations and traditional cinema? How is digiPlaySpace bridging the gap across various media?
MNL: New-media art emerged from film and photographic practices in the 1960s through the work of artists like Nam June Paik. This type of work aims to explore the possibilities made available by the translation of media from analog to digital. Like cinema, new-media artists use technology to tell stories, evoke emotions, engage people's senses, and challenge our ideas of reality. Our collection for digiPlaySpace this year includes many of these types of explorations, including animation and contemporary cinema techniques, as well as repurposing products from other industries to challenge how we think about our relationship to technology.
What are some of the highlights from this year’s exhibition?
MNL: It's hard to choose! All the work is really interesting and fun. Mimic by Design I/O is a stunning and engaging piece. I'm [also] excited for Flight Painting by Frolic Studio, a completely new piece that lets you make your own light paintings. It's hard to not just list everything in the show, so you'll just have to come check it out in person!
digiPlaySpace runs February 18 to April 23, only at TIFF Bell Lightbox.