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. Launched in the fall of 2020, the interactive was created by the Playful City Lab in collaboration with Sue Wrbican and Tephra for Reston, VA. Over the four-year run, the installation features 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 Tephra 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.

New Funding to Bring in New Artists (August 2021)

Included in the original intent of Buoyant Oracle (an interactive sculpture project created by the Playful City Lab in collaboration with Sue Wrbican and Tephra Institute of Contemporary Art) was to feature an evolving cast of of guest oracles over the four-year run. We are pleased to say that the first open call for guest oracles is currently running, with additional support from a seed grant, generously provided by the GLB Memorial Fund.

The Buoyant Force sculpture is inspired in part by the surrealist Kay Sage and other women surrealists. The artist, Sue Wrbican, noted that more people recognized the names of their male counterparts rather than the women surrealists. The goal of this project is to bring attention to other women and female identifying artists while allowing for deeper community engagement. This open call is specifically for women and female identifying artists living in DC, Maryland, or Virginia.

For more information on the sculpture, the oracle system, and the open call for guest oracles, please visit: https://www.tephraica.org/exhibitions/buoyant-force.

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Photos and Documentation

Players begin by scanning a QR code at the base of the sculpture:

Players are welcomed by the sculpture with a picture of an early physical version of the sculpture:

Many images include captions telling the picture’s story:

Our playful twist is the “Oracle” — who gives Tarot-style readings:

[crop image above green HELLO]

We animated the GIF to bring the card to life with a front and back that flips over automatically:

A new grant funded twenty artists to celebrate local women-presenting artists, with very different styles:

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Read more: the art center Tephra’s page on the sculpture, and the call for artists to contribute to the Oracle.