How 'Kota' Led to a Tech-y Company Setting Up Residency In Pulitzer Arts Foundation

By Krystin Arneson
In Culture

In past stories, we’ve written about how Pulitzer Arts Foundation’s “Kota: Digital Excavations in African Art” exhibition is less about reading informational plaques and more about putting the pieces of the exhibition together by asking questions and exploring relationships between different objects. That’s pretty cool. But what’s even better is one of the highlights of the exhibition: an immersive data-discoball of a room, the Kota Data Cloud, where visitors use a massive touchscreen to put all their Kota-connections together.

The program has the potential to be used outside of Kota as a way for museum visitors and students—or, in a more academic format, researchers—to draw similar connections in other genres of art (say, an app where students trace similarities between different Impressionists’ paintings to discover how the artists influenced each others’ work).

Of course, we were super curious about how the program was built, so ALIVE spoke with Rampant Interactive Co-Founder Carol Mertz to find out how the Data Cloud experience came together and what the company’s residency downstairs in the Kota ProtoLab is all about.

Kota Data Cloud detail, interactive digital tool designed by Rampant Interactive | courtesy of Pulitzer Arts Foundation

Kota Data Cloud detail, interactive digital tool designed by Rampant Interactive | courtesy of Pulitzer Arts Foundation

How did you come up with the general concept?
When The Pulitzer approached us, they knew they wanted to do something with what Freddy [“Kota” co-curator, Frederic Cloth, whose research prompted this exhibition] called his “Cloud.” The Cloud is sort of a 3-D representation of all the data points of all the Kota figures in the corpus. What they wanted was a very immersive room where you could walk in and interact with that Cloud …

Throughout a week or two of sitting down with The Pulitzer folks and talking about ideas, we came up with this idea of curating your own groups of figures using Freddy’s drawings. We actually prototyped it on physical paper: We printed out his drawings and started play-testing it that week with other employees at the Pulitzer and friends and family and just saw what they did if they were presented with a stack of these images.

Naturally they began to group them, and so we knew this was pretty much what we wanted to do—we noticed that people began looking at them harder and noticing the features of each one and saying “Oh, this one’s my favorite,” or “This one doesn’t look like it fits with these”—things like that. So that was pretty much exactly the reaction we wanted—we were really excited. We wound up keeping that card feel for the installation itself because it felt so tangible and it felt so integrated with Freddy’s drawings to begin with, that it worked really well with the exhibition theme.

How long did you work on it?
At the time when [the Pulitzer] reached out, we were overloaded with projects and didn’t have time to approach it until February, actually. So we had to scope within the constraints of the timeline, and so I think we did a pretty great job. We worked up until the week before the exhibition’s opening … we play-tested throughout the process…changing the game based on what worked and what didn’t work.

What size team did you have?
We had a team of five here at the studio. I did the graphic design—and our studio partner [Rampant Interactive co-founder] Ben Trioloa … he and I have essentially been project-managing—and then TJ Hughes has been the primary developer on the project. It’s the first client project he’s done; he’s actually only 19. He just graduated from high school, and he’s been making video games since he was like 13 or 14 years old, which is why we brought him on. He’s just so, so talented, and he really took off with this project and did such a great job. So helping him out was our studio lead developer, Joey Paniello, and we also had some consultancy and some help from our third studio partner, Dana Huth. The whole team had their hands in it at some point, but TJ put the bulk of the effort into the development. Ben and I kind of worked on the design itself.

As for your residency in the Kota ProtoLab downstairs …
… The idea with the residency is that it’s broken into four phases. We’re in the first phase right now, which is building an interactive tool that allows visitors to come in and look even more objectively at these figures and create their own figurines based on some of the attributes [Cloth has] identified. So that means we’re basically giving them the software to pick the attributes they want and create their own figure, which is kind of neat. We’re spending the next month or so fleshing that out to allow them to pick as many features as possible and create as innovative of figures as they want …We are actually recording all of these figures they’re creating, and if they choose, they can give us demographic information, and we can work that into our own data set …

In phase two, we’re taking the figures that these users are creating and we’re actually going to be 3-D modeling all of the features and putting together a 3-D model of all these user-created figures. We’re then 3-D printing them so visitors can see them in a tangible way and get much more of a physical connection with these brand-new figures that don’t exist in the real world.

We’re actually going to be bringing in students to reflect on those figures and curate their own show, similar to what [Cloth] and [Van Dyke] have done with the whole exhibition. And so they can create their own arguments; they can decide what figures belong with what figures …

In phase three, we’re going to be sitting down as a group and reflecting on the data we’ve gathered using both the figures and the demographic data set—have people created more than one of a single kind, has everyone been completely unique, that sort of thing—and we’ll start formulating arguments and talking about them. We’d love to bring [Cloth] back into the Pulitzer for that portion because he’s really interested in looking at that data with us. I think it’ll be really interesting to see what happens from that …

So that’s going to lead us into [phase] five, where we’re bringing in two local developers we’ve worked with in the past. One is Robert Santos—and he’s an expert in robotics—and one is Philip Hayes—and he’s a musician and developer. We’re going to be working with each of them individually to figure out what else we can do with technology to represent these objects and this data … just kind of play and see what we can do to support the exhibition further.

I’m really, really excited about that part because each of the sessions will be a week with each of these developers—essentially a week of completely rapid prototyping and just what can we come up with. I think it’s going to be pretty fascinating to come in and see that during the process itself and see what we come up with afterwards.

As long as the Pulitzer’s open, people are allowed to come in and see what we’re working on.

Is there anything else you’d like to add?
I’m so excited about this project, and I couldn’t be happier that we are working with the Pulitzer on something so completely innovative and unique to the art world. It’s beginning to get more traction—the idea of interactive installations and using interactions to enhance visitor experience in the museum—but I think this is one of the more interesting and unique approaches to it, since it’s not just an installation. It’s also a residency that is kinetic and working very closely to adapt and adjust in order to support the exhibition throughout the entire process, which I think is really, really exciting, and I think we’re hoping to continue that with future museums, which is something we’ve been excited about doing and hope to keep doing.


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