Artists Naho Matsuda & Melissa Borrell talk public art, playgrounds and the collaboration it takes to build interactive pieces
By Margaret Williams
Photographs by Jessica Pages with assistance from Katie Leacroy
These days, most of us have our purchases, locations and activities tracked daily. This constant cataloging, which we all agree to in the interest of convenience, generates endless amounts of data. The collection of all this information — viewed as benign by some and sinister by others — is rarely referred to as poetic, much less joyful.
Designer and artist Naho Matsuda flipped that notion on its head in her playful and interactive installation “every thing every time,” which presented data-generated poetry in the style of a train station departure board. Placed downtown in Brush Square Park during this year’s SXSW as part of the festival’s Art Program, the piece sat atop a support structure, whose bubble gum-pink and lemon-yellow hues could have been pulled from a European day care center. The whole effect was curious and charming, but what really caught the viewer was the sound and movement being created by the London-based artist’s work. The flutter of the letters flipping as the poetry changes created a hypnotizing sound known the world over.
On this particular day, Matsuda, in town for the annual festival, was delighted to have found a kindred spirit in Austin-based Melissa Borrell. The jewelry designer turned kinetic and immersive installation artist also comes from a design background, and the two women immediately connected over the fluid way in which they view work that has previously been categorized as either “art” or “design.” Borrell, whose piece “Tessellation Constellation” is installed at the Austin Facebook offices, has been a consistent participant in our city’s public art program. The women dove right in and geeked out over the inventive ways technology can factor into the type of work both artists produce.
Naho Matsuda: My background is design. Which is similar to you.
Melissa Borrell: Yes, that’s a big connection. I’m not so much interested in defining what the difference is, whether it’s art or design.
NM: You were trained as a jewelry designer.
MB: Yeah, I started as a jewelry designer. Whatever medium I worked in, I always worked more as a designer, sculptor. I was very interested in technology, industrial design and the play between functional objects and craft and art. The things I was thinking of in jewelry, I just started picturing them on a larger scale.
NM: Yes, a massive difference in scale.
MB: It’s a big difference in scale, but it’s funny, because other people think it’s such a big leap, but for me it was totally fluid. Can you explain your piece [“every thing every time”]? I know there is a lot going on behind the scenes.
NM: So for this piece now, it’s interesting, because it was an answer to an open call for public artwork. So there was always the element of being in a public space. It uses around 250 different data points, like air quality, water temperature, traffic noise. I looked up what I could find, what’s open access in Austin. I linked all these together with sketches and timetables. I looked up library opening times, barbecue joint hours. The bat colonies fly half an hour after the sun goes down, so that’s in the timetable.
For all these data points, I’ve abstracted them and prewritten a line of poetry for the different statuses. A huge writing exercise, and then it’s an algorithm that randomly picks five of these data points and the poetry is displayed. More and more cities have a lot of sensors. There’s so much data about us.
MB: I think it’s really beautiful how you take little moments and then they become poetry. For me, that’s the core of my work, too, in a different way. But the statement is the same. I want people to slow down and notice. Beautiful things are around us all the time.
NM: I was wondering here in Austin and the United States how much public art there is, or how much art people interact with in their daily life in the city.
MB: Yeah, it’s hard to compare. I’ve been applying a lot, to get my work out there. Austin’s growing so much, and the public art program here is really strong. I love activating a space. I installed one at [Boggy Creek Park] called “SkyLines.” It was illuminated up above. During the day, you didn’t really see it, and then at night, when the lights came on, it was interactive. The colors changed on a regular program, but also, when people came into the space, the sculpture saw them and then reacted.
NM: Yeah, it’s similar for me. I work with a developer and a fabrication studio, so it’s a collaborative process to develop the piece. And it’s something that I really enjoy — working with different people with very specific knowledge and explaining the idea to them.
MB: But also, I think, coming to it as a novice you are able to come up with something that, if you were intimate with that technology, you wouldn’t think of. It’s always the artist who’s like, Well, why don’t we do this?
NM: That’s a really important message, to have fresh eyes and not have a preconception of how the technology has to be used.
MB: Then it’s also nice to work with somebody who is really fluid in that language.
NM: It’s really interesting for me how the initial idea slowly grows into something which is quite collaborative, and then suddenly I feel like it’s not only my project, but it’s everyone’s. It looks like what’s displayed on this piece is so simple, but there’s so much work and technology in it.
MB: It doesn’t show … You want it to look simple — to be clean and to be as direct as possible.
NM: What’s your next dream project? Is there something that you want to explore?
MB: One, I have dreams of doing some sort of playground. Because that’s kind of the ultimate interactive sculpture. To have kids climbing on it, that’s a dream that hopefully, eventually, I would love to realize. I also really want to do something suspended. I have a great affinity for things that are floating and moving and creating shadows. What about you?
NM: Now that I did this mechanical project, I would like to do a series of paintings. I need to refresh and do something that I can do by myself in my little studio, with very simple materials. And I know that it’s probably surprising for people who see this work. But that’s what I would like to do — paintings that resemble what digital display does.
MB: Will they be literal representations or abstract?
NM: I think at the beginning literal. I would like to do something with the colors and shapes of voice interactions.
MB: I could see eventually things starting to cross again. Maybe your paintings enter into your other data pieces, or vice versa.
NM: Yeah, I think it’s interesting. I think when I zoom out, it makes more sense than when I’m in my head and focused.
MB: Where will this piece go next?
NM: It will go next to Bristol, to the U.K. There were a couple of people who were interested in showing it in different places. We have to pick out where it can go next.
When you look at cities, they are so messy. There’s so many layers of things happening. That interaction is really interesting. The more I stand next to the piece and observe people, I discover so many things. The way people watch, or read it, and slow down while they walk. Or, if it makes them wonder about where this data comes from, or what is it trying to tell them.
This story is part of our series “Listening In,” where we pair SXSW speakers and artists and then happily eavesdrop on the exchange. Find the complete series at tribeza.com/listening-in.