What are you making?
I'm creating an interactive experience that triggers various levels of misunderstanding.
By encountering confusion, discomfort or conflict, I want my audience to acknowledge the inevitability of misunderstanding and to rethink the role of it in our day-to-day communication.
Why are you making it?
Motivated by a desire to create positive change through the vehicles of compassion and empathy, I draw from my own experiences within a cross-cultural communications context. As an international student, I was confronted with culturally specific perceptions and the ways in which differing perceptions can create various forms of disconnect. I want to reveal how perception can be widened to achieve common understanding which creates greater cross-cultural and interpersonal empathy.
What are we looking at, and how did you get to creating this prototype?
A beak mask is placed on a stand in front of a "moon", which is a luminous circle on the wall. The journey begins when you take the mask and put it on. You suddenly hear a robotic voice, saying something you don't understand. Following each utterance, a change in the space is triggered. You see the moon changing color, the light strobing, hear a bell ringing. What the voice is saying doesn't make much sense to you, but there is some level of familiarity to a known language. After a while you kind of get an idea of how the utterance triggers a response. You start to follow it, mimicking the voice and see the response by yourself. Every time after you speak, that robotic voice also follows up with something, sounds like a response to you.
The experience is aimed to be surreal and otherworldly. Like stepping into a new world, or an unknown territory, everything seems so different from our lived experience and navigating the new environment could be difficult. There might be misunderstanding, confusion and conflict at first. But as we acknowledge the difference, and try to learn how things work their way, we could eventually build a connection within the new culture, like mastering a language, or understanding how the people there perceive their world. At the end of the video, the human voice and robotic voice start to sync which leads the narrative arc to arrive at a sense of consensus. The name of the work Talk To Me is a mental hint to encourage the audience to start talking and interacting, as well as a longing for communication and understanding.
Living in a time when everyone is required to wear a mask wherever we go, the way we communicate has been changed profoundly. The dependency for a face covering has also made me think of how artists transformed themselves into cyborgs by implanting technical devices on their bodies. Having my audiences wear a mask as a part of the experience is also questioning the idea of adding an extra limb as a new norm of our communication today.
The form of a beak is inspired by a psychological model of communication in which the message sender's main intent is speaking through one of their four beaks metaphorically. A beak is meant for speaking, but a mask could also block, muffle or distort your voice. I’m fascinated by the duality embedded in the beak mask concept, and it also creates a space to allow for both misunderstanding and understanding.
I read about one definition of culture in the book Sensuous Geographies: “culture can be defined as those social practices whose prime aim is signification... Perception is an essential part of this cultural process of signification, it is culturally specific.” As the author Paul Rodaway talks about the cultural dimension of perception and how people from other cultures could perceive the world much differently, he made an argument which I resonate a lot with: as we socialize into our own cultural frame of reference, all too easily we can misunderstand the nature of their experience and undervalue their understanding of the world around them.
We misunderstand because we are different. The way we deal with misunderstanding is the way we treat this difference. We cannot expect people to all share the same perception and belief, and trying to avoid or ignore the differences is more harmful. In making this project, I want to reveal the significance, embrace the difference, and invite people to experience misunderstanding as it is.
Iterations+where do you plan to go
Other than the beak masks, I’ve also been exploring in other directions and have created about 14 prototypes this semester including digital sketches and physical models.
For example in my first prototype I replaced a political slogan in Chinese with graphical symbols. This is a way for me to expand the cultural-specific perception and to transform it into a more universal language. In my final prototype the idea of creating a new way of communication is also inspired by this one.
The other important direction is the moon. In one of my moon prototypes, I created a metaphorical moon-to-moon conversation by playing with light, shadow and reflection. It amplifies the notion of difference while creating a gesture of reconciliation.
I’ve been swinging between the two ideas of misunderstanding and empathy through the whole thinking and making process in the past 3 months. I think they are inseparable eventually. The prototypes are all important explorations and have made me constantly think and reflect a lot about my thesis.
At this stage, I’ve made a working prototype which is a video that demonstrates the interactive experience. I’ve also built a technical model which is based on a speech recognition and synthesis algorithm. It’s not working ideally for now, therefore there are still a lot of technical problems to solve.
To what extent an artwork should speak for its intent?
What should be done differently if a physical installation is going to be shown online(maybe online only)?