Towards Open Web Public Art

Using the internet and open tech to grow public spaces

I gave a talk at the INST-INT 2013 Show & Tell, highlighting two recent pieces bringing interactions over the internet into public art. I want to encourage building openly, bringing joyful technology to public spaces, and finding new meaning with one another through interactive art.

I love interactive art because it encourages experiences that are collaborative, supporting creativity and play. I love public art because of its inherent openness and accessibility. When you combine the two, you get a powerful conduit for bringing joy to public places.

A little background

For the last couple years I’ve been making interactive public art with New American Public Art.

The most exciting part of making this art is seeing people get lost in the works and do unexpected bizarre things. For Color Commons we hacked an existing light sculpture to receive SMS with the Rascal Micro. The lights would change colors based on a texted word. Someone texted it ‘Fish’ 40 times.

NeodyaII was a giant planet covered in magnets. People built civilizations with little metal pieces. Someone brought a Godzilla with magnetic feet to hang out on the planet.

For the works, some control is given up to the viewers. It requires a lot of trust to leave part of the work in the hands of anyone, but that’s the fun. It makes the piece more meaningful for the viewers.

Imagining the possibilities of internet-connected public art

Because of the thriving community of makers developing for the open web, it is getting easier and easier to build collaborative and interactive applications online. Instead of directing that power and wonder towards new web apps, let us direct it to the public space, imagining what happens when we make the possibilities of those technologies accessible to anyone IRL. How might we create new meaning together?

Bubblegum Postcard: A collaborative mural, drawn from any browser

Kusama’s work is deeply immersive, and in her piece Obliteration Room, she invites the audience to grow the work together. I love this. It is simple, it is playful, we can do it together, and you can easily lose yourself in it to make it your own.

I wrote a simple app to create these circles on a web page with Processing. Click somewhere, and a circle is drawn in a random, bright color. Sharing data between browser sessions is much easier now with websockets. By adding that, any drawn circle would be broadcasted to anyone else on the site. You can see a quick demo below.

The Flint Public Art Project projected that on a building, and we now had a huge mural that anyone who could connect online could contribute to. A couple iPads were brought along, and people drew from those, their smartphones, or even from home.The first projection was in Grand Rapids, MI, and I participated from Somerville, MA.

Seeing other people’s circles grow on the screen was kind of magical. Even though it was just a circle, you knew there was someone behind it. People used the circles to draw patterns, faces, and even text.

All of the code for this is available online. As I mentioned above, this work was built using open web tools. By bringing it into a public art piece, people could participate from wherever, right alongside those present at the piece. The piece engaged a much wider public, and brought it right into the common space of a city.

Building an API for an LED grid

Works using LED grids— like Villareal’s Microcosm above— can be very compelling. Along the lines of connecting public art to the internet, what happens if you made these LED grids interactive, and accessible to the web? Any web connected device could contribute to the LED animations. We can imagine LEDs in public sculptures, or in storefront windows, that I can engage with through a browser on my phone.

A quick, simple prototype, using websockets to communicate with a server that draws on the grid:

My colleagues at New American Public Art— Dan Beyer, Greg MacGlashing, and Brandon Stafford— helped build a beautiful housing for the prototype, which I shared at INST-INT.

People could draw on the grid from multiple devices.

Again, all of the code for this is online. The quick prototype was possible because of socketio, p5js, Arduino, and node-serial— all open technologies.

There are many more open tools on the web I haven’t mentioned that can build powerful interactive and collaborative experiences, including three.js for graphics,and WebRTC for communication. The diversity and ease of use for these tools has been increasing over the past few years, and this will continue; there will be more open hardware and software tools and the interfaces to access them will improve.

Finding new ways to know one another

By the end of this it is clear that the web is a canvas among many that come together to make interactive and public art. Because inherently the internet allows for interactivity and collaboration, we can build new ways of expression with one another, and connect it to common spaces through public art.

When we’re in new environments where we can interact together, we can find new ways to relate to and understand one another. We grow together, and find new ways of creating joy.

Happy to talk more about this. You can find me on Twitter, or follow what I’m making through my blog.



Author of “Feeling Great About My Butt.” Previously: Creators @Medium, Product @embedly, Research @NECSI.

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Kawandeep Virdee

Kawandeep Virdee


Author of “Feeling Great About My Butt.” Previously: Creators @Medium, Product @embedly, Research @NECSI.