A Shared Experience
What is a city, if not the shared experience of the people who live in it? Usman Haque describes himself as a designer trained as an architect, but at heart, he’s an artist. As a creator of technology-powered large-scale interactive art, Haque travels all over the world to create moments of connection - not just between his works and the people who interact with them, but also for people to feel that their city is their own.
The audience may only get to see the end of the process, but for Haque and his Umbrellium agency, the creative journey starts a lot earlier. “For me, the most important part of the project is the process to get there. That may take a long time,” says Haque, who will often find himself on airplanes as his work takes him to the far reaches of the globe. “Almost every project I’ve done has in one way or another been inspired by a trip, or an experience I've had while travelling.”
Take Assemblance, a three-dimensional light sculpture that responds to touch. The public’s first moments with this installation may have been in a London gallery, but the idea had travelled far, having been born on the other side of the world: “Assemblance started with a moonlit walk on a hillside in the suburbs of Hong Kong, in Clear Water Bay,” says Haque. There was very little moonlight that night, he remembers, as he found himself in an unfamiliar place after dark, getting lost in the forest. It was then, while wandering around and trying to find his way back to the road, that Haque noticed glowing specks of light, so dim he wasn’t quite sure at first if they were real. They turned out to be bioluminescent fungus growing on the trees, their branches gently waving in the breeze.
“It was a stunning moment, to understand that this magical experience was really just one of the biological products of a hive of activity always going on in the background,” says Haque. “I’d never have seen it, if not for being in the right place at the right time.” Assemblance creates some of those same feelings: subtle lights in a dark space where you can’t quite see where you’re going, and for a moment you’re lost. But as the lights respond as you move through the mystical space, something unexpected happens, and the moment is only possible if you are in the right place at the right time.
“Almost every project I've done has in one way or another been inspired by a trip, or an experience I've had while travelling.”
Moments of Discovery
Haque is constantly seeking these moments of discovery when he travels, keeping an open mind as to what constitutes inspiration: “I'm not necessarily someone who needs to have a smooth trip, where everything goes to plan and I'm not bothered by anyone. I relish the little detours, of being confronted by things I didn't know were going to happen. Those are the things that become a prod of inspiration, a nudge that there's something else going on that I should pay attention to.”
To tap into ideas, the quiet is just as important as the noise says Haque: “I love the sense of public isolation you get on an airplane. It presents a wonderful opportunity to be focusing in on things I'm thinking about, and the project I'm travelling towards.” An airplane creates a peculiar combination of isolation and community, as people remain strangers, but they all share the same experience. For Haque, it’s a rare moment of quiet without distraction, creating an opportunity for ideas to bubble to the surface as the mind relaxes before the hustle starts again on the ground. Each destination is a chance for Haque to draw on new impulses to inform his work, and to understand the people who live there so he can create something unique - something that’s for them. Like how watching the birds in Toronto’s Nathan Phillips Square inspired Flightpath Toronto, an examination of urban flight that gave people the thrilling experience of flying over a public square.
Bringing Ideas to Life
Technology plays a significant role in bringing his ideas to life, but Haque doesn’t really consider there to be a strong distinction between technology and biology. Just as he welcomes the random moments when he’s on the road, Haque wants technology to embrace the unexpected. Smart Cities powered by the Internet of Things are surely a new phenomenon, but as Haque says, the ability to deal with uncertainty is something that’s sustained us through the ages.
“Technology has a capacity to make us distant, but also to bring us together. I’m always looking to figure out, how do we get closer to each other? How can we know how we each think about the world? How can we share our perspective?” Technology can help us do this, says Haque, but it requires skill to do it right. Because as close as technology can bring us to each other, it will never replace being in the same room, looking at each other, sharing a moment. “Getting to know someone is a spatial experience. Walking on the same street, looking at the same building, sharing that experience and talking about it.”
“Technology has a capacity to make us distant, but also to bring us together. I’m always looking to figure out, how do we get closer to each other? How can we know how we each think about the world? How do we share each other's perspective?”
A Sense of Community
Take the Burble, one of the “Citizen Engagement Spectacles” created by Umbrellium. The carbon fibre structure rises 200 feet into the air, containing over 1000 balloons with sensors and lights which can be controlled to create patterns as they ripple towards the sky. But the Burble is never the same experience twice: “The Burble takes a different form in every city, because people create it differently,” says Haque. In Singapore, the Burble changed with people’s movements. In Salford, it responded to Twitter. In Barcelona, it changed colour in response to the remote controls which people brought from home.
Of course, the Burble is about something more than this - it’s about creating light and letting it float away, “a bit like wishes”, muses Haque. Who hasn’t looked up at an airplane passing on a cloudless day, wondering where it’s going? “I'm really interested in how to support people in feeling the city is theirs. Theirs to be created, theirs to be experienced, theirs to make decisions about,” says Haque, adding that this isn’t at all how we’re used to thinking about urban spaces. But the communal aspect of the work is vital for creating a shared memory - not just about what’s happening in the moment, but also about an idea of how the future could be.
Flights of Fancy
From Hong Kong
Technology can be a valuable tool for making this possible, says Haque, who will often walk around in the crowd during his immersive exhibitions, listening to the chatter from people who don’t know who he is. Haque who considers himself primarily the architect not of the result, but of the moment - putting in place just enough of a framework so people feel confident enough to build, but not so much it feels rigid and prevents creativity. Just like Haque takes inspiration from Hong Kong to thrill an audience in London, the key is to approach the experience with an open mind, and to allow the journey to change you. “It’s a dance,” says Haque, “back and forth, getting it exactly right.”