The answer, if you were to ask Lincoln, Atlantic Re:think, or the designers at SOFTlab, is simple: We should.
This unorthodox collaboration began earlier this year, as Lincoln prepared to release its new crossover, the 2019 Lincoln Nautilus. Rather than promote the vehicle through traditional means, Lincoln wanted to create something novel. It teamed with Atlantic Re:think, The Atlantic’s in-house creative studio, on an ambitious undertaking that reflects its human-centered design ethos: producing an interactive public work of art. They found a like-minded artistic collaborator in SOFTlab, which, under Szivos’s leadership, previously created installations with LEDs and mirrors that react to viewers’ movements and sounds in real time.
The result of the trio’s joint effort is The Nautilus, a large-scale public art installation at New York City’s historic Seaport District. Please touch this art. Yes, you read that right. How the installation comes alive is, quite literally, in your hands.
The Nautilus is a constellation of 95 interactive poles that are activated by touch.
Passersby are invited to engage with the immersive space or observe others’ interactions from its central enclosure.
When you grasp a pole, its electrical field senses your presence and responds to the qualities of your unique touch.
This prompts the installation to light up and play a personalized tone from an eight-note scale, forming an idiosyncratic symphony of light and sound with other participants.
The Nautilus suggests how technology can produce an experience that’s inherently human, responsive, and sensory.
The Nautilus—named after its point of inspiration, the 2019 Nautilus crossover—joins New York City’s storied history of public art. Like its predecessors, it exists beyond traditional institutional barriers such as museum entry fees or a gallery’s hermetic white walls. “Museums are great, but our work that’s in the public realm is not in a white box, so it’s not framed, in a way,” says Szivos. The Nautilus’s approachable context—which creates the possibility of happening upon the work and unexpectedly engaging with art in daily life—is only one way in which the installation subverts art-viewing preconceptions. The installation also relies on human activation and transforms passive viewers into active participants. Szivos embraces the unanticipated results that come with giving the public that agency. “I think the engagement from the public is better when they come up with their own outcomes,” he says, observing that in his view, this kind of open-ended interactive art often results in a more resonant and memorable experience than people have with traditional art.
Inventive ideas for interactive artworks are well and good, but their execution relies on ease of use; one must understand how people move through space and relate to the world around them in order to meaningfully engage the public (appropriately, all of SOFTlab’s designers are, to some degree, schooled in architecture). The success of both SOFTlab’s art and Lincoln vehicles hinges on their respective designers tapping into that knowledge of human behavior. Throughout their artistic processes, from research and prototyping to fabrication, both SOFTlab and Lincoln designers consider how individuals will experience their creations—in short, how their work will come alive in the user’s control.
This shared sensibility is partly why Lincoln and Atlantic Re:think chose SOFTlab to create The Nautilus. “Artwork of course needs to stimulate and cultivate the society in which we live, but our vehicles also do a very similar thing,” explains Earl Lucas, the chief exterior designer at Lincoln. “…[It’s] doing things that are memorable, that enhance and complement society, no matter what the art form is.” One of the core brand and design tenets at Lincoln is “human.” It’s an approach that frames all aspects of its automotive design, and inspired Lincoln to commission a welcoming public piece of art. “Everything that we do at Lincoln, we try to do from a human perspective,” says Lucas.
It’s this very quality that made The Nautilus’s namesake, the 2019 Lincoln Nautilus, a solid creative foundation for SOFTlab’s art installation. The crossover’s Lincoln Co-Pilot360™ technology in particular informed the approach of SOFTlab’s designers. While on the one hand these technologies are pragmatic assistance features, they’re also designed to serve an intuitive human experience—to augment how drivers move through the world by helping them sense it. “I think the installation is framing this technology—and the idea of not only sensing but analyzing things—as fun and positive, and not solely a necessity,” says Szivos. The Nautilus installation uses technology to individualize the participant’s art experience; it senses the seen and unseen qualities that form one’s unique touch and responds to the user. Those who engage with it have a straightforward task: Touch. Hear. See. Experience.
Now that The Nautilus has entered the public sphere, Szivos looks forward to people making it their own—perhaps even activating the environment in ways that surprise his team at SOFTlab. “It’s like letting something out into the world,” he says. This sentiment is echoed by Lucas, who, as an art observer, sees the excitement in putting the art in the audience’s hands. “Now you’re not just reviewing something,” says Lucas. “You’re experiencing it.”
The Nautilus is installed at Pier 17 in New York City’s Seaport District until September 10, 2019.