Buoyant Oracle: A sculpture that talks back

This playful installation provides a way to chat and exchange photographs with the 50-ft tall sculpture “Buoyant Force” in person — while staying socially distant. Set to launch in the summer of 2020, the interactive was created by the Playful City Lab in collaboration with Sue Wrbican and the Greater Reston Arts Center (GRACE). Over the four-year run, the installation will feature an evolving cast of guest oracles.

Participation begins with a colorful sign at the base of the sculpture, inviting visitors to “talk with the sculpture.” In a conversational mode, the sculpture sends participants annotated photographs (similar to polaroids), revealing the hidden history and philosophy of the artwork. Somewhat hidden is an Oracle in the surrealist tradition of the original sculpture, which picks a different “reading” of paired poetry and remixed images of the sculpture for each visitor.

The goal, with an eye to the social distancing of COVID-19, is to provide a playful layer for engagement in person, especially since the nearby GRACE gallery is physically closed. As a design project, the installation explores how digital modes can strengthen the connection to place, borrowing concepts from game design such as: offering choices (not just content), cultivating playful participation, and embracing some unpredictability (not everyone will have an identical experience).

In terms of technology, the experience only requires a mobile phone — no fancy apps or even a data plan are needed. Behind the scenes, the Buoyant Oracle was built using a new authoring tool for public art and city games called Hive Mechanic, from the Playful City Lab at American University led by Benjamin Stokes with Hazel Arroyo, Chris Karr, and Mitchell Loewen.

For those who wish to try the experience, visit the sculpture in person or contact us for remote instructions.

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