In November 2021 the M+ Museum opened its doors in the West Kowloon Cultural District of Hong Kong. The M+ building is one of the largest museums of modern and contemporary visual culture in the world. Alex Antonia Liljebladh, awarded Creative Director and Motion Artist, shares the creative process in developing the interactive exhibition “The Cabinet”, where a robotic arm shuffles artworks for a multiplayer game, empowering visitors to interpret art.
How did this idea of a multiplayer game about interpreting art first take shape?
One of the first things I always want to establish in any given project is its purpose and mission statement. Having the creative team and the client aligned on this is extremely powerful for a successful collaboration. I was
working with an incredible team at the design and technology studio Potion in New York. During our Research & Discovery phase, we facilitated workshops to help the M+ team formulate the mission statement for the project, which became: “To make every visitor feel empowered to interpret art”. This statement helped guide us in the creative process to develop an experience that would do just that.
“To make every visitor feel empowered to interpret art”
Why do you think this became the focal point for The Cabinet?
Because interpreting art can be an incredible tool to understand societal context, history, ourselves and one another. Unfortunately, many people feel uncomfortable when asked to interpret art, and fear that they might say something wrong. Our goal was to dismantle the inhibiting idea that interpreting art is something only experts can do, and make people realize that everyone already has all the tools they need to converse about art. There is no right or wrong, it’s about the observer’s relationship to what they see, which will differ depending on language, culture, gender, age, ideologies and life experience, and that’s ok. In fact, that’s what makes it fascinating.
How does the game work?
The Cabinet consists of 200+ artworks hung up on large panels that the robot arm shuffles throughout the day, making the experience at The Cabinet forever changing. The visitors can join in at one of the six tablet stations at the front, or via their own mobile devices. There are several variations of games, but they are all built on a similar framework:
- A question is posed about the artwork
- The visitor submits their answer
- All submissions are displayed on a large projection in the room
- The visitors vote in real-time on the submission they like the best
- The winning submission is revealed
The game presents different prompts about the artworks on display, such as “If this artwork was a record album, what would it be called?” or “If you could ask the person in the painting something, what would it be?”. The visitor submits their answer, or if you will, interpretation, before the timer runs out, and all the submissions appear in real-time on a large projection in the center of the room for everyone to reflect over. The visitors can vote on the interpretation they like the best, and there’s a moment of suspense as the votes animate real-time on the collective projection. The winning submission is revealed, and a new round with another artwork and interpretation challenge begins.
What did the game design process look like?
We did a ton of research on successful board and digital games with elements of interpretation. We analyzed what made them fun to play, and developed our own games that we then test played using very simple tools like pen, paper and PowerPoint slides.
We carefully noted the behaviors of the players, and what aspects of the games worked well and which didn’t. We iterated until we had designed a game that was both fun and aligned with the mission statement.
What was your greatest inspiration for the game?
One of many research paths brought us to deep dive into an education technique called Visual Thinking Strategies. In short, Visual Thinking Strategies (VTS) is a group interpretation exercise, led by a trained facilitator asking the group open questions about a piece of art. The main aspect of VTS includes three key inquiries:
- What’s going on in this picture?
- What do you see what makes you say that?
- What more can we find?
What’s so exhilarating about this rather simple framework, is the magic that happens as people in the group start to share their answers with each other, something I had the opportunity to experience firsthand in a VTS session I attended for my research. Each individual will notice different things in the work, so as one starts sharing, the rest of the group’s attention expands to detect even more details in the work. Through collaborative interpretation, a deeper understanding of the work unravels. So we asked ourselves; Could we, through design and technology, create an experience where visitors use each other to improve their ability to describe, analyze, interpret and discuss visual art? This was an important milestone in our work, where we determined that we were not building an individual experience, but a collective, collaborative one.
As you mentioned, interpreting art can be intimidating, how did you tackle this challenge with the game?
To achieve high participation, we designed the game with a low barrier to entry by using what you in game design call “a small ask”. “A small ask” is carefully designed to make it so intuitive for the player what they need to do to participate, that they simply can’t resist trying. Once the player had entered the game, we also needed to retain them. This was partly done through visuals and animation, but by adding the voting mechanism we introduced an element of suspense, excitement, and competition. This spurred curiosity to see the winning submission. While partaking in the game, visitors would inevitably also partake in a group interpretation exercise, reflecting on others’ and their own interpretations of the artworks.
Can you tell me a little bit about the visual design and animations in the game?
We developed a visual system that spoke to the concept of “unfolding”, as one visitor’s interpretation unfolds new insights for another. This concept was consistently applied throughout both the digital design, as well as the interior design of The Cabinet. The beautiful, unique barrier in front of the artworks was developed by our partnering interior designers at Studio Joseph. Depending on where the visitor is standing in the space, the layering of the perforated metal sheets of the barrier’s opacity and perception changes – a subtle nod to the beauty of interpretation, and how a slightly different perspective can entirely change your view.
What do you hope people will bring with them from The Cabinet experience?
Doing something you’re new to is scary, and interpreting art with a group of strangers can feel quite exposing. The Cabinet provides a unique, safe space to explore one’s own voice, and improve one’s ability of interpretation as an invaluable tool for exploration and understanding of both one’s internal and external world. Bringing this ability and applying it to other contexts outside The Cabinet can, for some, be the starting point for tremendous growth and perhaps even life-changing insights. This is my personal mission as a creative, to use my skills to create experiences that can plant a seed. A seed that will take a life of its own for positive change, long after the experience is over.
Alex Antonia’s work can be seen on www.alexantonia.com. Her creative studio offers creative direction and design for interactive and visual design projects.