A rockstar and a technologist join forces with 4 cognitive research labs, TODO MUNDO!, Pace Gallery and experiential design firm Unified Field bring experiments to life in an 60-minute interactive performance experience called NEUROSOCIETY.
Pace Art + Technology is the Pace Gallery’s two-year-old offshoot in Menlo Park, Calif. The organization is committed to giving a platform to studios and artists whose endeavors probe the intersection of art and digital technology or utilize digital materials and methods. The Gallery began exhibiting work in 2016.
The current Pace Art + Technology exhibition, entitled “The Institute Presents: NEUROSOCIETY,” presents the emergent research of fifteen internationally recognized cognitive neuroscience laboratories transformed into immersive interactive experiences that blend art, performance, games and science.
Best known as the frontman of the legendary band Talking Heads, David Byrne has been very busy creating and exhibiting art, writing and directing films, scores, books, musicals and now, spearheading NEUROSOCIETY along with collaborator Mala Gaonkar. Gaonkar serves on the digital advisory board of The Economist and is a trustee of Tate, Ariadne Labs and several foundations in addition to her work at a tech investment firm. The two became connected through longtime mutual friend Brian Eno.
Byrne and Gaonkar worked with highly-regarded research labs from California to Princeton to London, gathering the information that ultimately advised the experience. They made this statement about NEUROSOCIETY:
“Experiments, we feel, are a form of theater. We have adopted elements of art installation and immersive theater to present these experiences in ways we think will be as engaging for others as they have been for us. We traveled and met with many scientists who generously welcomed us, patiently answered our untutored questions, and creatively collaborated with us on this project. In the course of creating The Institute, the work of our partner labs has become both a window and a mirror through which we view ourselves and our larger interactions with the world. We wanted to share these concepts with as many people as possible.”
The NEUROSOCIETY interactive experience is intended for 10 person group audiences 10 years and older and has a 60-minute runtime. Participants are lead through four rooms and a series of experiments and exhibits designed by neuroscience labs, which are intended to reveal how people interact and make decisions and affect how we see ourselves.
NEUROSOCIETY engages participants on scientific topics in a three-act format. Experiential design firm Unified Field worked with client TODOMUNDO! on Acts I and II. The first act is called Game Show: Moral Dilemmas.
Before entering the Game Show, participants have the option to enter demographic data about themselves anonymously. Then they are fitted with a wristband to wear during the experience that is equipped with a unique user code. In the Game Show, the participants are guided to answer (via a tablet) a series of moral dilemmas with shifting contexts and the answers are then reported, tallied and analyzed in real time.
The next leg of the journey is entitled Classroom: Predicting Politics and examines personal bias in the context of guessing who won actual elections using photographs of the opposing candidates as the sole criteria on which to base the decision. Much like in Game Show, participants can see their responses in real time, juxtaposed with previous data and the actual election results. The guides then prompt a discussion dynamically based on the data presented.
The third act, Spa Room: Equiluminance, Rhodopsin includes two visual and light experiments followed by a mind-bending VR odyssey, Being Britta, which was built by Yannick Leblanc, in which participants are convinced they have been transported into the body of a doll. This effect is accomplished by seating participants in a semicircle of chairs with VR headsets, that feed from a doll with a VR camera for its head. When one of the guides tap the doll’s leg, an apparatus on each chair taps the leg of the participants. When an assistant threatens the doll with scissors, visitors feel as if the blades are at their neck, despite logically knowing they are in no danger.
In a recent interview, Gaonkar told NPR station KQED, “This (experience) should provoke a conversation. I think that’s the point of this. It’s not to sort of dictate a lesson—you’re biased about X or Y—when you learn about these biases, how does that change how you make decisions maybe over time?”
An App for That
When Unified Field began their collaborative effort on NEUROSOCIETY, the TODOMUNDO! team introduced them to their previous experiences and what had—and hadn’t—worked.
One of the challenges the TODOMUNDO! Team had faced in previous experiences pertained to the “fairness games” used within the Game Show, which tracked hypothetical currency used by participants. Their team wanted a system analogous to an Automatic Teller Machine that would function more smoothly during play.
TODOMUNDO! also specifically wanted Unified Field to create an integrated system that would allow the performance of experiments with attendees in-person, record and tie attendee responses to anonymous demographic information. The first step the Unified Field team took was to translate in-process scripts into functionality wireframes and graphic interfaces.
The complete system that Unified Field helped create for NEUROSOCIETY Game Show and Classroom is comprised of 22 tablets locally running a custom app, two servers, 10 Arduino-controlled coin receipt/distribution systems (linked to central tabulation software), projected and screen content and an anonymous demographics registration tablet that connects to a wristband printer in the entry area.
"It was fun to work on a project that was designed to be an exciting show. The TODOMUNDO! team and David Byrne were always focused on the audience member, constantly striving to improve the flow and experience. That struggle for perfection was contagious and worked its way into the environments and the software," comments Jeff Miller, Unified Field's director of programming.
The building the NEUROSOCIETY experience is housed in used to be a Ford dealership, the layout of which presented unique physical and networking challenges. The team achieved complete integration into the rooms by placing the servers behind the walls and stationing tablets at each user desk or podium. The overall scenic design planned for the deliberate placement of the tablets and the custom-designed graphic user interfaces and projections embody the aesthetic of the entire experience, creating a strong, cohesive sense of the theatrical throughout.
Mind Bending Flexibility
According to the Unified Field team, the technology design and implementation was, in itself, an iterative performance element. Sherri Wasserman, lead designer, remarks, “Although we typically build in an iterative fashion, these solutions had to have much greater flexibility and transparency in the design-build process.”
Unified Field’s reasoning for the dynamic, flexible nature of the special-built systems was twofold: to accommodate the still-evolving scripts and to allow the guides to select which activities to play and in which order to play them. After rounds of user testing, the NEUROSOCIETY team refined the performance to include fewer experiments than originally planned. Conveniently, the system was built with the ability to add on and iterate with ease for future versions of the experience.
“The way these programs were designed and built speaks to our continual process of flexibility and adaptability,” says Wasserman. Though they have a solid work process, the work that the Unified Field team did on NEUROSOCIETY supports their belief that the best work is designed and built in an iterative process.
In the interview with Gaonkar, Byrne said of NEUROSOCIETY, “It really does change how you think about things. How you think about what we are and how we react, how we make decisions and how we are in the world. Even if it happens just a tiny bit, that’s pretty great.”