Starry Heavens: A Game for One Ruler and Several Silent Players Interview with Designers Nathalie Pozzi and Eric Zimmerman

June 27, 2015 - A performance of the kinetic game and art installation,

A performance of the kinetic game and art installation, “Starry Heavens” by Eric Zimmerman and Nathalie Pozzi in the Kogod Courtyard of the Smithsonian Museum of American Art.
Photo © Susana Raab 2015

The starry heavens above, the moral law within.

– epitaph of Immanuel Kant

June 27, 2015 - A performance of the kinetic game and art installation,

Eric Zimmerman in the Kogod Courtyard of the Smithsonian Museum of American Art.
Photo © Susana Raab 2015

Nathalie Pozzi and Eric Zimmerman have cool jobs.  Nathalie is an architect and Eric is an interactive game designer and professor at NYU.  When Eric contacted me to ask if I would shoot their interactive game at the Smithsonian American Art Museum on June 27 my answer was an emphatic yes. Eric did a good job of explaining what they were planning to do, but I still had no idea how this was going to manifest. This is the kind of job I love.

After I had the experience of photographing this game installation, I was so impressed by the performance I asked Nathalie and Eric if they would do a Q&A. They kindly said yes, and here it is, along with some photographs from the event.

LU: In June Smithsonian American Art Museum hosted your interactive game, Starry Heavens at American Art in the Kogod Courtyard, which is a beautiful skylit air-conditioned venue in the middle of downtown.  It brought together a lot of strangers into a symbiotic space and created interaction, connection and touch among disparate groups of people.  Your day jobs are related but different: architect and professor of game design. How did this collaboration come about and how does it relate to your day jobs?

E: Our collaboration came about a bit unintentionally. I had designed a sport for the Come Out & Play Festival of street games and at the last-minute, I asked Nathalie for help with the final installation. We really enjoyed working together, which led to our first collaborative project: Sixteen Tons, an installation for the Art History of Games Conference in Atlanta.

N: I see our work together within a shared context of design. As an architect I always combined more traditional projects (I’m renovating a house on the Alps) with projects that are related to temporary installations or artworks (I often assist artists in the installation of their projects). Eric also makes a wide variety of games – some more traditional, some more experimental. So working on these large-scale game installations is very much integrated into our ongoing design thinking.

June 27, 2015 - A performance of the kinetic game and art installation,

 LU: What was Starry Heavens’ genesis and previous iterations? 

N: The first version of Starry Heavens was commissioned by Kill Screen for an event at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City in 2011. We installed it in the MoMA sculpture garden, in front of a 2-story glass window facade. That version of the project used ten helium-filled meteorological balloons as the “floating” element. We have also shown the work at the Play Publik festival in Berlin and the Playful Arts festival in Den Bosch, Netherlands.

 E: From the start, Starry Heavens was intended for a party or social event. The game design reflects this: there is no start or end to the game, so people can enter and leave as they wish. Starry Heavens works with as few as 6 or 7 people, but it really scales well up to 30 or 40 players at once. We also like the way that the game draws a crowd – people learn by watching and then gradually can decide to enter the game and play.

“The game is a kind of moral fable” – Eric Zimmerman

June 27, 2015 - A performance of the kinetic game and art installation,

LU: And the giant white balloon? how did you come up with that? Did you get any feedback on that? Its too bad it was only up a few days. 

N: The idea of a “Starry Heavens” that floats above the players is an important part of the space design. In the past, we used large helium-filled weather balloons for this element. But given that Helium is a non renewable resource, and some of the limitations of using giant helium balloons in the past, we decided on a different approach for the Smithsonian. The white “curve” is a cold air inflated, suspended structure that we designed specifically for the Kogod Courtyard with Erik van Dongen at Air Design and designer Clara Ranenfir. We think it is a good improvement from a technical and space design point of view.

 June 27, 2015 - A performance of the kinetic game and art installation,

LU: What was the idea behind the nomenclature: ruler, banish? the kant quote: the moral law within?

E: The title of the project is a reference to Kant’s epitaph: “The starry heavens above, the moral law within.” The game is a kind of moral fable.

The central player – the Ruler – commands all of the other players, telling them how and where to move. These players must work with and against each other to overthrow the Ruler, who stands at the center pulling down the central balloon.

But the Ruler’s desire to reach skyward feels meaningless and absurd, and ultimately distracts from the unruly subjects.

Starry Heavens is a kind of abstract political cartoon in the form of a game.

June 27, 2015 - A performance of the kinetic game and art installation,

 LU: How was your experience exhibiting at American Art compared to other productions of your interactive experiences? audience, etc.

 N: In the past, Starry Heavens has generally been played outdoors at night. The Kogod Courtyard, although indoors, has many qualities of an outdoor space. It is an incredibly beautiful setting that had a strong influence on defining the new inflatable element. We are very grateful to the American Art Museum for supporting this new version of the work – they pushed us conceptually and technically to evolve the work to a new place.

E: The audience was also incredibly diverse! We haven’t had a situation with such a great mix of players – young children, college students, older adults – all playing together.

 June 27, 2015 - A performance of the kinetic game and art installation,

LU: What is your goal in creating this work?

 N: As designers, we like the idea of responding to a specific space and context. Each time we exhibit Starry Heavens there are new considerations in terms of design, audience, and installation. For me, working with these changing constraints are what keep the project interesting.

E: I love inventing new ways for people to play. Working with Nathalie lets me design games for spaces and contexts where people don’t normally encounter games. And hopefully they interact in ways that would never happen otherwise.

 

June 27, 2015 - A performance of the kinetic game and art installation,

And how does its practice jive with your day job?

 E: We both have independent design practices – making videogames and tabletop games (for me) and designing buildings, furniture, and objects (for Nathalie). The work that we do together is a kind of design research – because there are less commercial constraints, we are freed to do stranger and more unusual work. And we continue to learn from each other on each project we make together.

June 27, 2015 - A performance of the kinetic game and art installation,

LU: What are you two working on next, do you have any upcoming events?

E: We are in fact working on a concept for a new project.

N: But that’s not very helpful – sorry! We can’t say too much about it since it is in the very early stages, but… we do know it would take over several rooms of a building and the working title is “Waiting Rooms.” Hopefully there will be more to say in the months to come!

June 27, 2015 - A performance of the kinetic game and art installation,

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Fiber Artist Grethe Wittrock Studio Visit: from Denmark to DC

Artist Grethe Witthrock's Northeast Washington Studio. © Susana Raab 2015

Artist Grethe Witthrock’s Northeast Washington Studio.
© Susana Raab 2015

I had the pleasure of photographing Danish fiber artist Grethe Wittrock‘s work in advance of her solo show Grethe Wittrock: Nordic Currents at the Fuller Craft Museum in Brockton, Massachusetts September 12, 2015 – January 31, 2016.

As a photographer, people often make the mistake of thinking the only thing I appreciate and study is photography and documentary photography at that.  Nothing could be further from the truth, I am most inspired by painting, nature, literature and music and appreciate art in all its forms.  I’m also very interested in why people make art, how they sustain their practice, and what inspires them.  I was quite taken with Grethe’s work. She recently moved to DC from Denmark for her husband’s work, and has already set up shop in the fabulous Okie Street artist studios in NE, one of the rapidly changing areas in DC.

Grethe Wittrock's space in the Okie Street artist studios. © Susana Raab 2015

Grethe Wittrock’s space in the Okie Street artist studios.
© Susana Raab 2015

I asked Grethe if she’d do a Q&A in advance of her show, and despite her busy schedule she agreed.

Artist Grethe Witthrock's Northeast Washington Studio. © Susana Raab 2015

Artist Grethe Witthrock’s Northeast Washington Studio.
© Susana Raab 2015

LU: Please tell us a bit about your work.

GW: Over the years, I became fascinated with the interplay of the sea, the sky, the wind, the birds, and the sails. Since Denmark is surrounded by these elements and I walk along the shores, I observed all these things. I wanted to incorporate them in my art. So I created large bird wing sculptures, created in weather beaten used sails, which I cut, painted and sculpted.

LU: Did you always know you wanted to pursue an artistic career; how did that come about?

GW: No, actually I wanted to become an archaeologist, maybe that’s where my love for stones and earth and structures in nature comes from.

I guess I could have chosen to become a ceramicist as well, but ended choosing to apply to get into the textile department at the Danish Design School in Copenhagen back in 1987.

© Susana Raab 2015

© Susana Raab 2015

LU: Why fiber arts? How did working with sailcloth come about?

GW: Because I could work with structures, layers, surface changes and imitate the wonders I saw in nature, for example the lime grass at the coast.

In 2008/2009 I worked for 2 years creating a large expensive gold wall hanging in a small studio next to Empire State Building. The photographer, Finn Føns, a Danish photographer living in New York, took the official photo of the gold wall hanging. When I visited his home, I saw his large photos of the Danish trainee vessel Georg Stage, with its enormous sails.

I immediately got struck by the beauty and rawness of these sails and felt it would be the right medium for me to work in for my next project. I needed a more raw and tough material after the years with extremely fine gold threads and delicate handwork.

Detail: Grethe Wittrock's fiber art. © Susana Raab 2015

Detail: Grethe Wittrock’s fiber art.
© Susana Raab 2015

LU: what is it you hope to achieve through your work?

GW: To succeed in combining rawness with poetry.

Artist Grethe Witthrocke's work in her Northeast Washington Studio. © Susana Raab 2015

Artist Grethe Witthrocke’s work in her Northeast Washington Studio.
© Susana Raab 2015

LU: Your pieces have a beautiful sculptural quality to them – what are your sources of inspiration? sculpture? Painting? books? music?

GW: One of my inspirations is a painting by Leonardo da Vinci ”The Annunciation” where the angel is kneeling in front of the Virgin Mary-and the interesting thing is that the wing of the angel is an anatomic correct imitation of a bird wing. I have had that painting in mind many times when sculpting the bird-wing-sculptures.

LU: How do you find yourself in Washington and how is the exhibit? Are there many spaces for artists back home?

GW: I moved to Washington in January 2015 because my husband got a job as senior advisor on climate and energy at the Danish Embassy, and it was a great chance for me to get closer to the American audience, and a big chance for me to show my work in a museum.

Yes, there are many fine exhibition spaces in Denmark, but the commercial galleries hesitate to take a chance on that area, where they consider my works belong, somewhere between art, craft and design. America is much more open for fiber art, there are a much wider audience and awareness and appreciation of the medium in the states.

Thank you Grethe! I wish you much success for your show! See more of Grethe’s work at http://www.grethewittrock.com/

Artist Grethe Witthrocke's work in her Northeast Washington Studio. © Susana Raab 2015

Artist Grethe Witthrocke’s work in her Northeast Washington Studio.
© Susana Raab 2015