An Interview with Filipa Valente


    Formally trained and practicing as an architect, artist Filipa Valente forges beyond the expected precincts of surface, space, and form, creating immersive installations where the observer and perception serve as integral elements. Interweaving light, environment, sound, and biomorphic allegory, Valente’s lush environments undulate, palpate and seduce.
    We recently chatted about several of her projects, and how she utilizes Max into her creative process by expanding her physical prototyping capabilities while enhancing the interface between image, sound and body.
    Can you describe your work for us?
    I’m an architect and an interactive and media artist. My work looks at creating relationships between our bodies as users, the spaces that we inhabit, and the environment around us.
    I design installations that allow us to not only experience space in different ways, by creating immersive experiences, but also link these spaces to the outer world and the environment around them.
    Birdcage Express @ La Cage Aux Folles
    How are you linking to the surrounding environment?
    Well, for instance, I'll gather data through environmental sensing techniques, or connect to video feeds that are collected throughout the city. It varies depending on the site and application.
    I’m interested in creating immersive installations that combine the different scales and different elements: our bodies, space, and the surrounding environment, into one interface.
    To achieve that I’ve experimented with physical prototyping of interactive interfaces where external sensors and users can activate physical responses.
    ... the data gathered was CO2 concentration, light and sound from the city
    Can you describe your Liminoid Garden piece?
    Liminoid Garden started off from an experiment with building façade systems, which is like building skins for buildings. I was looking at ways to activate a skin through readings of the environment, while also researching a system for cladding buildings.
    So I designed some physical elements, which I called Liminoid blooms, that are very much inspired by plants and nature. These elements collect environmental readings, measuring data such as CO2 pollution levels and light intensity. The sensor readings cause the blooms to react in different ways, in terms of how they move and fluctuate LED lights.
    The blooms also had a second form of interaction with the users of the installation space. They responded to the environment rather slowly, but once people were present in the space of the ‘garden’, they showed a more intense behavior. It helped differentiate between the two forms of data that the garden was collecting.

    Filipa Valente [limiLAB] Reel 2010 - 2014

    I initially conceived a smaller prototype, which evolved into a larger installation. It used the interior of a building, instead of a façade.
    For the latest version of this project I integrated another level of interaction with performance artists. Two dancers from the Heidi Duckler Dance Theater interacted with the very beautiful architectural space where the garden was located and with the blooms. I designed LED costumes for the dancers that transformed them into another element of the Liminoid Garden. So it became a piece that was symbiotic.
    I’m more interested in generating abstract behaviors or feedback loops
    How do you choose what data is relevant for a particular project?
    In my work, the data gathered for a project addresses a question or a problem relevant to the space or environment where it’s located. For the Liminoid Garden project, the data gathered was CO2 concentration, light and sound from the city. I wanted the sensing in this project to be related to some of the negative aspects of living in a city, such as air, sound and light pollution. Ironically, the garden ‘breathes’ and feeds itself on this information.
    But on the other hand, I also think it's important to involve the users and allow them to add their imprint to the installations. Using proximity or camera sensors, I let the users change the base behaviors that are being generated by the environmental sensors.
    In the case of the Liminoid Garden, the responses varied between light fluctuation patterns and actuated movements of the blooms. The environmental sensing created more subtle reactions in the garden such as light brightness changes and gradients that mimicked a sort of breathing behavior. The presence of people in the space sparked more noticeable changes like fast and sharp movements of the blooms.
    I’m more interested in generating abstract behaviors or feedback loops, rather than creating direct representations of the sensing. I think it leaves the users more intrigued and every discovery becomes more exciting. I like that the users of my installations don’t get an immediate understanding of what it is doing, and that different people come away from it having different interpretations.
    You grew up in Portugal?
    Yes, I did. I grew up in Portugal, until I was about 18 and then I went abroad to London to study architecture. All my university education is as an architect. And I actually do work as an architect. It’s one of my passions.
    While I was in London, around 2009, 2010, I saw a series of intriguing performances that involved light effects and electronic music, but also created very interesting environments as part of a large performance show. I was fascinated by the immersive experiences that I got from these performances and how physical it felt. That made me very interested in developing architecture alongside interactive media arts.
    In 2010 I came to Los Angeles to do a media arts and architecture post-graduate course at SciArc. In terms of programming I was very much an amateur when I came out here, but the course really helped me get a grip on the basics of programming, physical prototyping and other relevant tools and techniques.
    Since then I’ve been developing my own media art work, through some festivals and exhibitions that I’ve applied to as well as some events that I now get invited to participate. It has developed into a kind of parallel practice to my architecture work, which is also very exciting.
    To me they both link very naturally due to the concepts of altering space, augmenting, and making spaces that I intervene on a little bit more interesting and more appealing.
    I can interface with so many different things like sound, lighting, and images
    Were you artistic as a child? Did you know you wanted to be an architect?
    Yes, I was. By the time I hit high school, I was already very interested in architecture.
    Even earlier, in elementary school, I was very lucky in terms of exposure to drawing. At high school, we had some classes that involved a lot of model making, also using clay. I was always very attracted to making three-dimensional objects.
    At some point it just seemed like a natural thing to look at buildings, and to move on to another level. Taking the objects that I was modeling and drawing and transforming them into spaces that I could inhabit.
    The media arts came a little bit later. I had already explored this a bit at university. I studied at the Bartlett School of Architecture at University College in London, which is quite an experimental architecture school, in terms of creating interesting prototype models — even models that are actuated! It was great in terms of trying out different ways of looking at design, and coming up with unique ideas for projects. So it was a big influence as well.
    When did you start working with Max?
    I started in 2010, when I came to study in the U.S at SciArc. We started off with a class that looked at more typical coding environments, like Processing and Java. At the time, I was getting along with it, but I always felt like it wasn’t that intuitive, the way that I was working with these tools.
    But once we started learning Max, I was immediately much more comfortable with the visual interface that it has. I think of things much more visually than just through pure code. So I find the diagrammatic way of organizing thoughts in Max helps a lot in developing my work.
    I also love the fact that I can interface with so many different things like sound, lighting, and images. Physical prototyping with it is so much easier. So it was a really great discovery for me.
    Was Max hard for you to pick-up?
    We started off with a little bit of a background in coding, using Processing — which is a bit easier for amateur coders, I guess. So once I got onto to Max, and I knew the basics of writing code, it was much easier for me to me to visualize the connections, through the Max interface. I definitely found it easier than a more traditional coding environment.
    Have you used Max in your media-art work?
    The Liminoid project we just discussed doesn't use Max. Instead the blooms use an internal Arduino system, which connects wirelessly to the other blooms through XBee antennas.
    But I have another project, HybridScope City where Max was the key element. It allowed me to interface between a Kinect sensor, moving image, and physical actuation.
    I was interested in tracking the body. So I used Max to filter data that I was getting through a skeleton-tracking script. With Max I processed that data and interfaced it not only with image and video but also for generating sound. The users of the installation were not only changing image, but they were also changing sound as they moved.
    I also had an Arduino board connected through a Maxuino Plug-in for Max that controlled a field of LED lights. Max was perfect in that I was able to have all these different elements integrate through one program, all talking to each other.
    That's another thing that I really like about Max, not only can I create my own program, but I also can infinitely customize it. I’m very much a visual person, so I like the idea that once I finish my small program, I can customize it and have a beautiful interface to use, that's easy to navigate.
    Can you describe the concept behind Hybrid Scope project? You have me intrigued!
    The HybridScope City project was a proposal for the LAX airport. It used a three-dimensional screen for the lobby areas of the airport. The installation intended to give a feel of what was going on around the city, in real time, to the users of LAX.
    So I built a prototype, a screen that took up a form of a voronoi system. The screen was divided into multiple small windows. As you approached the screen, it would give you different snippets of footage that were being collected by users around the city.
    The content was collected by people walking around in the city with their phone cameras. So, it's possible that anyone could hook up to the system and collect footage that would be sent to the airport installation. This footage was also treated to be abstract, so that it would be more about getting a feel of the city rather than getting a very photorealistic picture. The project collected silhouettes, movements, or shadows of people and random conversations. The aim being that the user would have an immersive experience of traveling through L.A. while staying in the airport lounge.
    I hope that in the future we can make it common practice to embed these technologies and tools into buildings.
    Are you able to apply some of these theories to your architectural work?
    The concepts that I research in my installations also apply in my architecture work. At my job at Synthesis Design + Architecture, we developed some projects that approach new technologies and sensing devices as something that could be embedded in the designs. A lot of these proposals still remain as concepts but some are already commonplace in Architecture.
    For example, the use of environmental sensing which interfaces with architecture has been around for a while already, mostly for developing smart building façades that respond to sunlight and weather. But of course there are multiple other possibilities when it comes to the design of buildings.
    Creating intelligent buildings that respond to users movements, speech or even thoughts and states of mind is the next step. I hope that in the future we can make it common practice to embed these technologies and tools into buildings.
    Text interview by Marsha Vdovin and Ron MacLeod for Cycling '74.