by Jerry ElengicalSep 25, 2021
Filling the Raphael Court of the Victoria & Albert Museum, is a ground-breaking installation for the 2021 London Design Festival, titled Medusa. However, if you were to walk into the court, you would not see the installation at first. Tin Drum, a renowned mixed reality studio, in partnership with Japanese architect, Sou Fujimoto, has created an enormous work that is not physically built. The installation can be experienced via a see-through mixed reality headset. 50 viewers can simultaneously experience the piece while physically being present in the Raphael room. The medium of mixed reality enables the merging of real and virtual worlds to create experiences where the physical and the digital design elements co-exist and interact in real-time. Medusa blends the audience's view of the physical world with another virtual dimension of the structure. The interface is a tool that allows the viewer to not only experience the virtual structure but also engage with it. Viewers have the ability to affect the overall structure through their movement and engagement, giving the immersive installation a whole new dimension. Using light and sound to create a constantly evolving architectural environment, the piece invites broad questions about the nature and function of architecture in the absence of a physical structure. Medusa originated with Fujimoto's fascinations with the interrelation of nature and architecture, and the influence that inhabitants have on their built environments. The name of the installation refers to the medusa-phase of certain gelatinous aquatic creatures. Yoyo Munk, Director of Medusa and a trained biologist, expanded the concept by drawing connections to the biological architecture of organisms, the influence that organisms have on their natural environments, and the relationship between vision and bioluminescence.
In an interview with STIR, Yoyo Munk elaborated on the core concepts of the piece and how mixed reality is used as a means of understanding the ways spaces are inhabited.
STIR: What is the importance of activating not just the visual but also the auditory sense in an artwork?
Yoyo Munk (YM): In any kind of mixed reality or any kind of experiential space, it is a full sensory experience; there is the physicality of the space to think about, but also how we interpret information about the environment we are in visually, as well as the sounds we hear inside that space. The history of human architecture is filled with examples of spaces where buildings and rooms are designed specifically for their sonic characteristics and how they allow sound to propagate in that space. So, the idea of creating a soundscape for this piece was to have access to encourage exploration. We have this visual structure that exists and spans the entire room, and we mirror that in the soundscape where we have this large array of speakers, so that when you are in one part of the room, you will hear one thing and someone else will be hearing something else. So, it is not simply a background sound, rather it is another aspect, another dimension of space. It is our hope that the way the sound propagates through the room will imply movement and imply the nature of the structure and transform the conscious experience in relation to that object. We have tried to balance two things in terms of the sound design. We have a melody that was composed by Ryuichi Sakamoto, which is a very emotional and very human piece of music. It is overlaid with a recording that is derived from the sounds of the ocean. So, we have this mixture of the human recognisable and the abstract, mirrored in terms of what your visual experience is, because you have this view of the Raphael Court which is this human recognisable space and then you have this abstract structure that represents an architectural decomposition.
STIR: Could you comment on how the installation speaks to the Raphael Court it is located in?
YM: When we realised it was possible to make use of the Raphael Court, there was no question that that was what we were going to do. So, the piece is designed for this room. The installation is an unusual piece of architecture, in that it has a bit of a life cycle to it. It is a concept that is capable of moving into other spaces, but it was born in this room. It is shaped by what this room feels like and how people are exploring it right now. It will move into other rooms and occupy different spaces and have similar characteristics but it will never feel the same as it does here.
STIR: The installation is meant to show the connection between "modern life, designed space, and climate change". Could you elaborate on this aspect of the installation?
YM: A lot of this piece was about thinking about architecture and nature. Often when people think about architecture and nature, they really think about it in an aesthetic sense, such as ‘I am drawn to these natural forms’, and incorporating that into a sense of architecture. But there is another aspect to this, which is that human architecture over the course of its history has existed, generally at the expense of natural structures. There is a positive aspect to the relationship between architecture and nature, in that we can draw inspiration and beauty from nature. But there is also the other aspect which is that we have to recognise our structures have displaced and destroyed natural structures which were there before. With regard to the idea of design spaces, what we hope is that this piece will certainly raise questions and possibly inspire people to think a little bit about their relationship with architecture, and also the fundamental story of architecture which is the idea of separation from nature. Throughout the entire course of our history, there is always this implicit narrative that we have divided the world into inside and outside, there is the human world and the natural world. As a species we now stand at a point in history where we are beginning to see the initial individually recognisable consequences of having internalised that story. We have gotten to this point with this idea that humanity has this dominion over nature and that we are in control and that we can use and shape this for our own needs. That story has always been false, but we have been so enamoured by that story that we have gotten ourselves to a point where we, as a collective species, will be forced to come to terms with the consequences of those actions. One of the natural pieces of architecture that served as an inspiration for this piece were Scyphozoans and Jellyfish in general. Due to the actions of humanity as a collective, we have made obvious changes to the architecture of all natural spaces but we are also creating these ecological niches which other organisms will move towards. Once the Raphael Court has crumbled into dust and there are no humans at all, the oceans will still be filled with Jellyfish because of what we have done. So, this will be the architecture we leave behind over any architecture we have built.
STIR: Should humans stop building? Do we have enough built spaces?
YM: If we want to survive, if the desire is for us to not go extinct as a species, then absolutely. We should stop building and stop digging carbon out of the ground and burning it. One of the principal ideas of this piece is the contrast between the individual and collective behaviour. The structure has individual single columns but the complexity of the whole emerges from how the columns interact with one another.
STIR: Can you tell us a bit more about how the installation is meant to interact with the audience? And how does technology bridge or document this interaction?
YM: The installation has been conceived as a piece that has a life of its own and a certain dynamism. It breathes inside the space, it grows and it changes. The long-term hope for this piece is that it will continue this process. This work will always be defined by its time inside the Raphael Court. It will always carry a signature of that room and how people interacted with that space, but it will also adapt as it moves into new rooms. It will grow to fill the spaces and change the way it behaves. The piece will never feel the same in one room or another. The idea here is to explore contrast between the way we think about architecture as a static space, versus natural structures which are by their very nature constantly changing. The idea is for this piece to serve as a kind of mirror so that we can look at our architectural spaces and see the reflection of natural structures in indoor spaces and explore it. This creates a feedback loop between the structure and the audiences as well. If it has a long life and it goes to many places, people will start to have more and more expectations of what they expect the structure to feel like as they come into it.
STIR: Any concluding remarks?
YM: It is not my desire to be didactic here. I don't want to prescribe how people should respond to this piece. I hope that there are multiple ways that people can interpret and feel inside this space. If people come into it and really just find it beautiful and enjoy that time spent with it and find it peaceful and meditative, that is perfectly valid as well. All architecture is defined by a conversation, the structure is dynamically changed by humans that inhabit that space. It is my hope that if this piece is to function as a piece of architecture, that it would then fall into the same pattern.
Click here to read all about STIR at LDF, a STIR series on what to look out for at the London Design Festival 2021.