Hylomorphic Canopy, 2011. Digital proposal for dynamic canopy in downtown Los Angeles.

In Search of the Immersive Environment, A Conversation with Behnaz Farahi

Breathing Wall 2.0, 2014. Wood structure, Spandex, flexible PVC rod, DC motors, leap motion device, and depth camera device, 8 x 12 ft. View of installation at iMAPpening 2014, University of Southern California, School of Cinematic Arts, Los Angeles.

Behnaz Farahi’s work is at the crossroads of installation art and new media, with an eye to the future. Using cutting-edge technology, she addresses the potential of interactive environments and their relation to the movement of the human body. Farahi’s work has been shown in Beijing, Shanghai, Canada, and the United States, and in 2013, she won first prize at the annual Kinetic Art Organization’s Exhibit and Symposium. This year, her work was featured at Skyline, an annual Los Angeles exhibition focusing on experimentation and research in art, technology, and architecture. Farahi, who is pursuing a PhD in Media Arts and Practice at the University of Southern California, comes from Iran and has a background in architecture. Her installation Breathing Wall 2.0 was recently on view at the university’s gallery.

Sandra Wagner: Your work is very sculptural, but you describe it in architectural terms.

Behnaz Farahi: My background is in architecture, but I agree that my work is very hybrid. It’s an installation, so it can be considered as a sculptural piece. If you compare sculpture to architecture, the two disciplines have a lot of overlap. You can ask, “Is it architecture, or is it sculpture?”

SW: But you, as the work’s creator, define it in a certain way. The video of Alloplastic Architecture shows what looks like a performance piece with sculpture, yet your accompanying text is based in architecture.

BF: All of these disciplines—media art, performance art, sculpture, architecture—used to be considered separately, which made it difficult to consider them as a hybrid entity. But in this new period of advanced technology, the border between media artists, architects, material scientists, sculptors, and performance artists has been eroded, which somehow takes us back to the situation in the Renaissance era. Michelangelo was an architect, artist, sculptor, and poet. He was everything at the same time. And now is the time for the emergence of new artists who integrate all of these disciplines. I’m fascinated with the use of technology and bodily performance, with bringing these notions together to create an immersive environment. Much of my work is about creating an environment, which, in the end, is the concern of all architects—how to create an environment or enclosure. A couple of pieces, like Breathing Wall (2014), have evolved to demonstrate how one element of the environment can be interactive. In the future, I might have an interactive ceiling and floor, or I might explore how we can have an interactive environment that becomes alive.

SW: Is that your goal, to create an enclosed environment?

BF: I’m interested in seeing how we can have an immersive environment and in understanding what the person goes through who lives in that environment, like living within a living organism. This was my thought in Alloplastic Architecture (2013), where there is feedback between the dancer and the structure. She defines how the structure forms and moves, and it’s informing her next action, so basically the dancer and the structure dance together. The question is how to live in an environment in which you have feedback. 

SW: Who or what determined the movement of the sculptural aspect in Alloplastic Architecture?

BF: I’m working with all sorts of technologies. In Alloplastic Architecture, I used a Kinect motion capture device, similar to a camera, that captured the skeletal movements of her body in real time. Her movements then correlate to the movements of the structure, informing its response, either moving toward her or away from her. I define a set of rules, and I leave the system to see how the performer interacts with the piece.

SW: Alloplastic Architecture was exhibited in Canada, Shanghai, Beijing, and in Pittsburgh at Carnegie Mellon, and it won first prize at the 2013 Kinetic Art Organization’s Exhibit. What do you think accounts for the great interest in this work?

BF: They were different exhibitions addressing different themes. The show in Canada was part of an international conference on computational theory and architecture, as were those in Beijing and at Carnegie Mellon. The exhibition in Shanghai was about interactive design. And the KAO exhibition was about kinetic art. The piece obviously lies at the intersection of these areas and perhaps demonstrates how technology is bringing all of these fields together. 

SW: What are you working on now? 

Camouflage, 2014. Shape memory alloy springs, aluminum tube, bungee cord, and foam, approx. 3 x 3 ft..

BF: My new piece is called Camouflage, and it looks at the relationship between the body and architecture, considering how the border between these two can be blurred. It is a soft, wearable, robotic piece, designed to bridge the gap between the body and the near environment, in which the body of the performer would be camouflaged or revealed by the piece; it is not so dissimilar to the way in which a butterfly emerges from a cocoon. My interest falls into designing an environment that relates to the bodily movement of the user and fulfills his or her physiological needs. 

SW: There’s a continuity in your work in that you have the human form in mind—multiple people in Hylomorphic Canopy or a single person in Alloplastic Architecture. Do you think that the trajectory of your work will follow the ideas of Hylomorphic Canopy, which is built into the architecture of the city, or will it be a hybrid of ideas with forms like Camouflage? 

BF: That’s an interesting question. I have a tendency to work with the skeletal body, exploring how something can be considered at a micro-scale, as an extension of the body, or on a macro-scale, as an immersive environment within a city. In terms of fabrication, I’m not sure, because what I’m producing is mainly designed for indoor spaces. But in terms of design, I would love to use that layer of the city and to see how density and the movement of people can inform something. But to be honest, exploring the interactive behavior of people within indoor space is more important to me right now. When you go outdoors, it’s a totally different situation—you have wind, rain, and other factors to deal with, especially working with technology. I have to minimize the number of external factors in order to convey my idea. That’s why Hylomorphic Canopy was not actually fabricated; it was just a speculation about how a canopy within the city could crawl and interact with people. It never got to the point where I could build it. 

SW: You have an actual person in both Alloplastic Architecture and Camouflage. Will Camouflage reflect the same idea, with the movements of the person and the structure feeding off each other?

BF: In the future, Camouflage may have feedback, but at this stage, it remains pre-programmed to show the concept. As it moves and starts bobbing up and down, I want to see how her body adapts to its behavior. It is like an experiment to see how a body can work with some kind of extension. I was reading Andy Clark’s Natural Born Cyborgs, in which he argues that we are all cyborgs because we already have relationships with different devices. He also speculates about what the next human is going to be like. There’s a lot of discussion going on about whether there will be an exoskeleton attached to our bodies to enhance our abilities. Being a cyborg doesn’t just mean having prosthetic devices; it also means having an exoskeleton that enables you to walk or run faster. Camouflage is about brainstorming how the next human might be enhanced in the future. Maybe we will all have some sort of portable architecture that we can use in public space, a place where we can hide and be in our own cocoons.

SW: How are Breathing Wall and The Living, Breathing Wall related?

BF: It started with The Living, Breathing Wall, which attempted to explore how simple elements in our surroundings can change their physical configuration as we interact with them. The scenario for interaction that it tested was voice recognition—visitors could use their voices to trigger the movement of the wall. Later on, Breathing Wall explored a different activation system involving the implementation of a gesture-based technology and movement mechanism. The latter has more dramatic movement, whereas the first one has a more subtle, complex movement. However, they are both kinetic installations in which the form is informed by the behaviors of the users. I am not interested in creating something that simply moves; I’m interested in the quality of the movement. The shift in adaptation from a mechanical paradigm to a biological paradigm is the intention of my design and research, particularly by looking at and learning from nature. 

Hylomorphic Canopy, 2011. Digital proposal for dynamic canopy in downtown Los Angeles.

SW: Where was Breathing Wall exhibited?

BF: This work was part of the Skyline 2014 competition. Ten artists and architects were selected to exhibit interactive pieces in downtown Los Angeles. Initially I suggested two parallel and interactive walls so that people could walk between them, but it could not be supported financially, so I decided to have just one wall. 

SW: It was installed in the Fashion District. Was this your choice? 

BF: No. One of the ideas behind the exhibition was that it could help to rejuvenate downtown L.A.; people were given maps so that they could find the works and explore the city, which was a very interesting way to have a public audience interact with the work. 

SW: You wrote about the potential of Breathing Wall to interact with the disabled. What did you envision?

BF: This started with the public coming to see the piece during Skyline 2014. There was a woman in a wheelchair who came up to control the wall with her gestures; in fact, one of the shots in the video shows her. When I saw her, the impact was exaggerated, and I thought about how her movements could be enhanced with the use of technology. That moment was dramatic for her—more so than for people who are not disabled. For her, the controls were a magic hand with extreme power. I was thinking about how the whole environment could respond to every kind of body. But first, I need to reflect, study, and understand the constraints of disability, and then maybe I can design something. In the future, it may be possible to design a direct interface that allows users to interact with their environments without any intermediary mechanism, especially for the disabled.

SW: Environment is a key element in your work. How important is it for you? What are your ideal living and work spaces like? 

BF: I was trained as an architect, and the built environment is very important to me. And, of course, the design of the spaces in which I work is crucial. But let me talk about a different environment—the technological, intellectual environment in which I now find myself. It is a type of environment that can develop an understanding of its users through their bodily movements and respond accordingly. This sort of environment would change the way in which we live by developing an empathic relationship between the user and the environment. 

Sandra Wagner is a writer living in Los Angeles.