Context: Smita Sen is an interactive artist. We conducted our conversation over the phone around the broad topics of the interactive, interdisciplinary, intersensory nature of her work and her body and landscape themes.
Playing with Spaces
Smita works with four themes: body, landscape, human-computer interaction, and ritual. Her body theme stems from her desire to show how bones, musculature, organs, and breath become both the artist’s instrument and materials. Her landscape theme is about nature and the naturally occurring play spaces in which we exist. Her human-computer interaction theme explores how computers mediate the body’s relationship to such play spaces. Her ritual theme is about repetition and cultural expectations.
We began the conversation with the unifying thread across all of the themes Smita works with as an artist: the interactive, interdisciplinary, intersensory nature of her art. For her, it’s all about the full range of motion of the body and bringing people out of their comfort zones and into new play spaces.
To illustrate what she meant, she told me about her newest work: Into the Shell.
Everyone is talking about virtual reality- it’s the hot topic at conferences and in tech industry news. In practice, Smita finds that the challenge becomes how to handle the unnatural immersion in which you have a heavy, massive object on your head and are unable to see the rest of your body. It’s physically disorienting- the weight of the equipment throws you off balance, and the way it covers your eyes and obscures the rest of your body from view can cause motion sickness.
“Virtual reality is so difficult- you put something on people’s heads and they freak out. It presents a lot of usability problems.”
She and Joo Won Park, the studio partner of Sen and Park Studio, discussed these usability problems at length. They wanted to collaborate and explore a different way for people to experience virtual reality.
Smita had been developing an interactive installation concept centered on the Bivalvia crown, a 3D-printed shell-shaped sculpture she created. She brought together a team that included Joo Won and fleshed out her vision of creating a play space with the crown at the center of interactivity.
As the two explored different ideas, they imagined a way to work with a dark horse VR technology that Joo Won had developed during her senior year at Columbia University – audio that moves with you. It’s called spatialized audio.
I asked her to tell me more about what she means by terms like play spaces and spatialized audio.
A play space is the final product of creating a space where visitors can touch and move and explore- where they can move in unconventional ways that aren’t walking quietly and observing but rather touching, running, and jumping. These unconventional movements are harder to get people to do at an art exhibit, and the physical space must be designed in such a way so as to encourage and facilitate them.
Spatialized audio, also called localized audio, is audio that is engineered to reflect the nuance of your body’s movements in space. Headphones in general are capable of keeping sound volume constant, but otherwise sound gets quieter if you move away from its source.
In the world of VR, audio is often cast aside as non-essential and is currently usually just general background noise. With their work on Into the Shell, Smita and Joo Won were able to implement the spatialized audio technology in a whole new way.
The team is now working with a talented group of designers, engineers, and artists to design this interactive play space and bring it to life.
In keeping with her work to make interactive experiences less interruptive and more incorporative of full-body movements and interactions, Smita’s body-themed work builds upon her background as a dancer. This inspired her to investigate the body’s movement patterns.
Her undergraduate senior thesis at Columbia University was centered around the body- she spent time every day in a ten by ten studio with a pile of flour on a black floor. She created what she calls body drawings. They helped her discover herself as an artist. Her materials became her breath and her limbs, using every part of her body to create.
Every day she would check in with her body and make a movement with the flour, and then produce a larger drawing based on that movement. She was able to track how her body changed every day and learn about herself in this way.
She thinks about movement as really integral to understanding oneself, particularly how your body and movement changes overtime. In some situations, you use your full range of motion; in others, you don’t, such as sitting in a chair.
There’s more to developing the body than exercise- she’s also well versed in embodied cognition. We tend to think our cognition controls our body, but actually sometimes our bodies react first and inform our psychological and cognitive state.
She draws inspiration from Richard Long’s earth walks and Ana Mendieta’s work about her physical body as it relates to physical displacement.
“My interest in landscape stems from how the landscape you’re in shapes the way your body responds to your environment.”
Smita has spent significant time living in three diverse climates: the tropics of Miami, the desert of Dubai, and the crowded northeastern city of New York, where winter comes into play. Factors like temperature, humidity, and being in an open space versus a crowded city are outside factors that physically affect your body and mentally affect your brain.
In New York City, she feels her eyes develop tunnel vision and her body a constricted motion of walking on a grid. Everything tightens in New York. In Dubai, she feels like her whole body can breathe more easily in the open desert. In Miami, nature is overgrown and we have to manage it and trim it back; in New York, we have to seed the earth to create green spaces.
Growing up in Miami, she felt that the heat and the sweet, salty air does something to your brain. Dubai is also warm, but it’s a dry desert and your perception of time is altered because the landscape is always changing. Sand in the desert changes the surface of the Earth rapidly and the shape of the mountains can change before your eyes. At the same time, the city itself is under constant construction with new buildings going up overnight.
We diverged a bit to the diverse cultures of these three locales. As a woman, she feels that the way she perceives her body can change drastically depending on where she is. Miami is a mix of feeling self-conscious about wanting to look perfect but also more free to relax her hips and shoulders. In New York City, she feels like she wants to look like someone who works out all the time and has it all together. She sees a lot of tight jaws and necklines. In Dubai, there is a similar culture to Miami of wanting to look airbrushed, but overall the pace of life is far slower. The goal is to present oneself as elegant and not oversexualized. South Asian women in the Middle East often have the added challenge of dressing well in order to be treated with dignity.
We returned to talking about the climate, and discussed how the cold in New York gets into your bones quite literally. In warmer climates, your body can relax and it’s easier to stay healthy and active. In addition to the cold of New York, the darkness of winter feels constricting.
“When you confine someone’s visual space, their body reacts.”
I asked her to tell me about a specific work of hers that she feels exemplifies the landscape theme. Swamplands was a two channel video installation shown at Anthology Film Archives, a leading experimental film institute.
She was on a spring break trip to Louisiana with Habitat for Humanity and the group went on a swamp tour. It reminded her of growing up in Miami, and how much she missed being surrounded by gorgeous, lush nature full of wildlife. She filmed all of the footage for the project on the boat tour, not knowing what she’d do with the footage in advance.
The landscape acted as a place of memory. She observed how this place was similar enough to Miami that she felt like it was a place where she belonged, with familiar wildlife like great blue herons, roseate spoonbills, and the iconic ibis.
“You wouldn’t think these are the things that signify home but they do.”
The piece consists of two screens showing footage concurrently and you as the viewer sit in the middle and really feel like you’re there. It’s a really special piece for her because she was able to memorialize her Miami home without going home. In the swamp, there is a playful hum of life. An alligator lurks below the surface, a bird holds still, it’s like nature is just waiting for you to look away for a second.
She received audience feedback that in this piece, it’s easier to sense her movement than in video pieces of her dancing. When she dances on camera, it’s not the same thing as the camera actually becoming her movement. In Swamplands, you’re looking through her eyes.
As the digital world permeates more and more of our daily lives, staying connected on a physical level to the body and its movements and reactions to our surroundings provides Smita with a sense of grounding- something from which we can all learn.
This is part of a series called Coffee Shop Conversations, profiling digital natives who live their lives in celebration of what makes us human.